Courts Show Cause

When a person is believed to be in violation of a court order, (s)he may become involved in a formal hearing known as a contempt of court, or "show cause" proceeding. Because of the seriousness of the hearing, this brochure is designed to acquaint you with information about show cause proceedings. This brochure is not a substitute for legal advice.

You have the right to have your lawyer represent you at a show cause hearing, but a lawyer is not required. If you might be taken to jail, the judge must advise you that you are entitled to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint one.

A show cause proceeding begins when someone files a petition (a legal document) with the circuit court clerk. The petition states that a court order has been violated. Claimed violations might include:
  • Failure to pay child support
  • Failure to pay spousal support
  • Failure to pay child care expenses
  • Failure to pay health care expenses
  • Failure to pay court ordered costs
  • Failure to pay attorney fees
  • Interference with a custody or parenting time (visitation) order
  • Failure to provide required information
  • Other violations may also be claimed.

The petition and a proposed order are presented to a judge. If the judge is satisfied the petition indicates a possible violation of a prior court order, the judge will sign the proposed order. This is known as an order to show cause.

The show cause order will tell the alleged violator to appear in court on a specific date to tell the court why (s)he should not be found in contempt for having failed to comply with an order of the court.

Hearings may be held before a judge or a referee. A referee is an attorney or the director of the friend of the court office who has been appointed by the court to conduct hearings. A referee makes recommendations to the judge. Those recommendations, unless objected to, become an order of the court.

If you appear for a show cause hearing before a referee and disagree with the decision of the referee, within 21 days of that decision you may object and request a new hearing before the court. The method to object to a referee recommendation varies according to local procedure. 

If you wish to object to a referee's recommendation, you should discuss the matter with your attorney, or you may ask the friend of the court. Friend of the court employees cannot provide you with legal advice, but they can tell you about the local procedure for objecting to a referee recommendation.

If you are the person being required to "show cause" you must appear before the referee or judge on the set date and be prepared to tell the referee or judge how you followed, or why you were unable to follow, the court's order. You should have papers, paid receipts, canceled checks, or other documents which will prove you complied with the order. Because of the seriousness of the proceeding, you may wish to have an attorney with you. If you fail to appear for a show cause hearing, the court may issue a bench warrant for your arrest.

If you prove that the order was followed, the show cause proceeding will be dismissed. If you cannot show the judge or referee you followed the court order, the referee may recommend, and the judge may find, that the you are in contempt of court. When this occurs, a referee may recommend, and a judge may order, many things, including:
  • Granting you time to comply with a order;
  • Requiring you to pay a specific amount of money by a certain date;
  • Requiring you to turn over documents;
  • Directing you to permit parenting time (visitation); and
  • Suspending your driver's and/or occupational license.

A judge has the added authority to order you to be put in jail and to make you stay in jail until you comply with the court's order.
A show cause proceeding is serious. It is an important tool for the court to make sure its orders are obeyed.

Helpful Hints

To avoid a show cause proceeding:

  1. If a court orders you to do something, do it! If you do not believe the order is fair, you may file a motion to change the order or appeal the judge's decision to a higher court. If you are challenging an order, comply with it until the court changes the order or until an appellate court overturns the order.
  2. Keep accurate records. If the court order requires you to pay something, use checks, money orders or other means which will provide you with a written record of all payments. If you pay by cash, make the payment only to the friend of the court office. Obtain a receipt from the friend of the court cashier.
  3. If a custody or parenting time (visitation) dispute occurs, keep accurate written records showing what happened.
  4. If you are the person who wants to bring a show cause petition, try to work out your differences with the other party directly. Use the mediation services of the friend of the court office or through an attorney. Using these alternative approaches rather than filing a petition saves time and money.