Can a Stepparent Be in Contempt of Violating Child Visitation Orders
In Munari v. Hotham, the Mother and Stepfather of Mother child were held in contempt of a court order and were sanctioned after failing to comply with court orders specifically requiring them to adhere to an order permitting visitation with the child’s grandparents and other actions after relocating from Arizona to Missouri. Melody (“Mother”) and Brian Munari (“Stepfather”) sought special action relief from the contempt findings of the trial court.
The grandparents seeking visitation had taken care of the child for seven years after which time Mother assumed primary parenting responsibilities. After filing for custody of the child on August 6, 2003, the grandparents (after being denied custody) were awarded visitation with the child.
Mother immediately began frustrating the visitation resulting in court proceedings and was held in contempt of court and sanctioned. At a hearing on February 17, 2006, Mother is held in contempt of court again and ordered to pay an additional $8,500 in monetary sanctions. At the same hearing, Mother petitioned to relocate with the child to Missouri.
Her request was granted with conditions. Specifically, she was required to make the child available for visitation before the move and after the move as a condition of both the relocation and purging previous findings of contempt.
On August 23, 2006, Mother was again held in contempt for violating the court orders for visitation. The court also imposed sanctions of $500 a day until visitation was restored, ordered Mother to pay grandparents’ attorney’s fees, and reaffirmed the previous sanctions against Mother.
Stepfather took the opportunity at this hearing to move to be joined. The court granted his motion and immediately declared him in contempt alongside Mother for violating the visitation orders. The court also imposed sanctions and attorney’s fees against Stepfather. Mother and Stepfather moved to set aside the judgments, but the Superior Court trial judge denied their request. After an abandoned appeal, the Mother and Stepfather filed a Special Action appeal to the Arizona Court of Appeals.
In the Special Action filed in connection with Munari v. Hotham, Mother and Stepfather argued the trial court could not hold them in contempt for denying the grandparents visitation and the Stepfather could not be held in contempt because the statute applies only to parents and because he was not subject to the orders he was held in contempt for violating.
In regards to the first argument, The Arizona Court of Appeals found the issuance of the grandparent visitation orders were proper. The Arizona Court of Appeals also concluded the grandparents did not have the legal right to object to or prevent the relocation of the child to Missouri but, because they had already been granted visitation, they had a right to continued visitation. Court ordered visitation does not automatically terminate upon the child’s relocation.
Per Section 25-414(A)(1), when a grandparent has a right to visitation, both the grandparent and the court has the authority to enforce the continuing visitation through contempt proceedings even in circumstances where the parent chooses to relocate with the child.
When determining the appropriateness of relocation in this type of situation, the court must consider the factors set forth in Arizona Revised Statute Section 25-408. That statute requires a judge to determine what is in the child’s best interest. Since “best interest” is a widely encompassing term, it includes the relationship the child may have with others who have been granted visitation.
In regards to the second argument, The Arizona Court of Appeals rejected the idea that the court lacked the necessary power to declare a person in contempt when they are in violation of court orders. That said, Stepfather could be held in contempt if he were subject to the court order.
Because he joined after the previous findings of contempt (directed solely at Mother), he was not subject to court orders prior to that date. He was found in contempt for failing to comply with orders that were directed at Mother during previous court dates (February 15th and 17th) at which time he was not a part of the proceedings. As Stepfather was not subject to these orders he cannot be held in contempt for violation of the same orders.
The Arizona Court of Appeals found the trial court did abuse its discretion in holding Stepfather in contempt for violating orders to which he was not subject. Therefore, Stepfather was granted relief from the finding of contempt, resulting sanctions, and attorney’s fees. Mother is not granted relief as the court did not abuse its discretion in finding her in contempt, sanctioning her and granting Grandparents an award of their attorney’s fees.
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