The parties married in 1978, and they have three adult children. Plaintiff filed for divorce in September 2018, by which time both parties had reached retirement age. The property issues in dispute should have been relatively straightforward. Yet, pretrial litigation lasted approximately 10 months, in large part because defendant refused to comply with court orders regarding mediation, payment of temporary spousal support, and appraisals of property. As a result, the trial court held defendant in contempt, entered a default against him, accepted plaintiff’s representations of the value of real and personal property, and awarded plaintiff $1,092 in attorney fees related to the contempt proceedings. Following a one-day bench trial, the trial court ordered the marital home sold, and allocated the debts and assets between the parties.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
A claim that the trial court lacks jurisdiction is a question of law, which this Court reviews de novo.
JURISDICTION & TRIAL COURT’S AUTHORITY
Defendant maintains that the trial court’s orders were void because the trial court lacked jurisdiction. These arguments lack merit. Jurisdiction is conferred by MCL 552.6(1), which states: A complaint for divorce may be filed in the circuit court upon the allegation that there has been a breakdown of the marriage relationship to the extent that the objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved. In the complaint the plaintiff shall make no other explanation of the grounds for divorce than by the use of the statutory language. Under the no-fault divorce statutes, once the trial court has jurisdiction, the trial court’s authority includes the power to divide real and personal property, MCL 552.19, including rights to a pension, MCL 552.18. More generally, a divorce “shall be conducted in the same manner as other suits in courts of equity; and the court shall have the power to award issues, to decree costs, and to enforce its decrees, as in other cases.” MCL 552.12. This includes the power to hold a litigant in contempt and to enter a default. A court possesses inherent authority to enforce its own directives. A divorce case is equitable in nature, and a court of equity molds its relief according to the character of the case; once a court of equity acquires jurisdiction, it will do what is necessary to accord complete equity and to conclude the controversy. Ultimately, “[c]ircuit courts have jurisdiction and power to make any order proper to fully effectuate the circuit courts’ jurisdiction and judgments.” MCL 600.611. It follows that in this case, contrary to defendant’s arguments, the trial court had jurisdiction over the divorce.
Defendant contends that the trial court erred by holding him in contempt. Primarily, defendant appears to assert that he did not need to obey the trial court’s orders because the orders were void; defendant also appears to believe he was justified in not complying with orders because the orders were wrong. These arguments lack merit. “A trial court is empowered with the inherent right to punish all contempts of court.” [T]he primary purpose of the contempt power is to preserve the effectiveness and sustain the power of the courts. Because the power to hold a party in contempt is so great, it carries with it the equally great responsibility to apply it judiciously and only when the contempt is clearly and unequivocally shown. Contempt can be either criminal or civil. When, as in this case, the court employs its contempt power “to coerce compliance with a present or future obligation or to reimburse the complainant for costs incurred by the contemptuous behavior, including attorney fees, the proceedings are civil.” Id. By statute, a trial court may hold a party in contempt for failing to pay temporary support in an action for divorce. MCL 600.1701(f). More generally, a trial court may also hold a party in contempt for disobeying “any lawful order, decree, or process of the court.” MCL 600.1701(g). An order entered by a court without jurisdiction is absolutely void and need not be obeyed. But “[a] person may not disregard a court order simply on the basis of his subjective view that the order is wrong or will be declared invalid on appeal.” This exercise of the trial court’s contempt powers, in light of defendant’s repeated violations of court orders, was not an abuse of discretion, particularly in light of the trial court’s attempts to employ less drastic measures to compel defendant’s compliance.
ADVICE TO CLIENTS HAVING PROPERTY DIVISION ISSUES IN DIVORCE SETTLEMENTS
Aldrich Legal Services understands what a stressful time this is for you when you have property settlement issues.
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