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Misunderstanding a Custody Order Can Lead to Contempt

Child custody orders are court-issued documents that require parents to adhere to a set of provisions regarding custody and visitation. For many parents, understanding the legal terminology included in these orders can be challenging, especially when the provisions are vague or open to more than one interpretation. Ideally, court orders would be written simply and clearly, but that is not always the case.

Intentional vs. Unintentional Violations


Willfully ignoring the provisions of a custody order can lead to a number of consequences, including being held in contempt. You could be required to pay for the other parent’s legal fees, cause the order to be amended in a way that disadvantages you, or even face jail time if you purposefully violate a court order.


What happens when one parent violates a court order unintentionally? Not understanding the terms is not an excuse to violate a custody order. Parents can still face legal consequences for failing to adhere to the order provisions, even if they claim to have done so unintentionally. However, there are circumstances in which a parent’s misunderstanding is justified, like in the case of Walter v. Walter out of Forsyth County.


Walter v. Walter


The parents in the Walter case had a consent order regarding child custody and support. The order included the requirement that the father would have summer vacations with the children for at least two non-consecutive weeks while the children were out of school for summer break. The father was ordered to notify the mother by April 1st of each year as to which weeks he chose for this vacation time.


In the summer of 2019, the father took the children on two non-consecutive vacations, equaling three weeks in total. The mother filed a motion to show cause, stating the father should be held in contempt for violating the two-week summer vacation provision. The trial court found the father was in contempt for willfully violating the custody order. The father appealed.


The father stated that he believed the language in the order suggested he could take the children on vacation for longer than two weeks. The Court of Appeals determined that this was a reasonable conclusion. Because the common understanding of the phrase “at least” is “no less than,” the wording in the order could suggest that the father could have more than two weeks of vacation time with the children. The Court of Appeals vacated the contempt order entered by the trial court.




While not every instance of unintentional violation would be justified, the order terms in the Walter case were ambiguous enough that the father’s mistake was deemed reasonable. Discussing your order with a Greensboro divorce attorney is always a good idea if you are unsure about the terms.