Virginia Court Found Defendant in Contempt After PSA Breaches

A property settlement agreement (PSA) is an agreement between the parties reached out of court but still possessing the full enforcement power of the court. The defendant’s breaches in the case of Mills v. Mills, which was heard in the Virginia Court of Appeals, forced the court to exercise its enforcement power against her. 

The Breaches

            The defendant was accused of three breaches of the PSA with the plaintiff:

  1. She failed to maintain a life insurance policy payable to her children. 
  2. She claimed a child on her taxes in a year where plaintiff was supposed to.
  3. She spoke negatively about plaintiff to the children.

The Issue

            The defendant argued on appeal that even though she was found at fault for her PSA breaches, they should be adjudicated as criminal contempt instead of civil. On its face this appears to be an odd appeal, but there are constitutional safeguards that apply to criminal contempt, making it harder to prove than civil contempt. Criminal contempt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt and the state of mind requirement is subjective, whereas civil contempt requires clear and convincing evidence and an objective state of mind. 

The Ruling

            On the first cause of action, the appeals court agreed with the circuit court in finding that the defendant had ended her insurance policy prematurely in violation of the PSA. The court then found that the order requiring the defendant to obtain a new life insurance policy within 30 days was a remedial sanction for the benefit of the injured party, making it civil contempt.   

            On the second cause of action, the court of appeals once again agreed with the circuit court and found that defendant should not have claimed her son on her tax return in certain years. The defendant was ordered to pay $1,066 (the amount it cost plaintiff when he was not able to claim his son on his tax return). The sanction’s purpose was to give plaintiff what he was entitled to under the PSA, holding the defendant civil contempt.

            The PSA also contained a clause that required both parties to refrain from doing “anything to interfere with the love and affection of the children for the other party.” Defendant was caught on video disparaging plaintiff to her children and was assessed a fine of $1,000. The appeals court found that this sanction was punitive and fell under criminal contempt. As a result, the trial court was reversed and the case was remanded on this cause of action.

            According to the PSA, any party in breach of the agreement was obligated to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees in enforcing the agreement. As a result, the appeals court awarded attorney’s fees to plaintiff, but the exact amount would need to be determined by the trial court.

Smith Strong

            The attorney’s at Smith Strong draft PSAs on a weekly basis and will make sure that you are protected in the event of a breach. If you need help with your divorce, whether it is contested or uncontested please call one of our offices at (804) 325-1245 (Richmond) or (757) 941-4298 (Williamsburg). One of our attorneys will meet with you and guide you through this trying time in your life.

Editorial Assistance: Michael Gee

H. Van Smith
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