The incorporation of a property settlement agreement into a final decree of divorce does not always provide clarity and finality regarding the parties’ issues. Through oversight, lack of communication, or poor drafting, a settlement agreement’s provisions may not accurately or fully reflect the intent of the parties on certain subjects. Post-divorce contempt actions, or proceedings to modify alimony, child support, or custody, may expose such shortcomings. A court consequently may need to interpret the meaning of the settlement agreement in order to decide the claims asserted. The question then becomes: to what extent can the court consider the parties’ intent when interpreting the meaning of their agreement?
Basically, ‘[w]here the parties in a divorce action enter into a settlement agreement, its meaning and effect should be determined according to the usual rules for the construction of contracts, the cardinal rule being to ascertain the intention of the parties. In approving and adopting a settlement agreement, the court adopts the meaning and effect of the agreement as it was intended by the parties.’(1)
The nature and extent of the court’s examination of intent depends on the clarity of the written contract’s language. Where the pertinent terms of a property settlement agreement are clear and unambiguous, a court will look to the settlement contract alone to find the intention of the parties.(2) If, however, ambiguities exist in the settlement agreement’s language, a court can resolve those ambiguities by considering testimony, or documents other than the agreement itself, regarding the intended meaning.(3) Such “parol evidence” cannot be used though to add to, take from, or vary a written agreement.(4)
For example, where a property settlement agreement unambiguously stated that husband would pay wife $200 per month for the maintenance and support of the four minor children until they reached the age of majority, the husband could not introduce parol evidence of an intent to proportionally reduce the agreed amount as each child became emancipated.(5) In contrast, where a settlement agreement’s language – regarding the husband’s retirement benefits to which wife was entitled – was susceptible to more than one interpretation, the court could consider parol evidence to explain the intended meaning if the agreement as a whole failed to clarify the provision’s meaning.(6)
(1) Anderson v. Larkin, 190 Ga. App. 283, 378 S.E.2d 707, 708 (1989), quoting Cousins v. Cousins, 253 Ga. 30 (1), 315 S.E.2d 420 (1984), rehearing denied (1984) (citations omitted). (2) Gray v. Higgins, 205 Ga. App. 52, 54 (2.b) 421 S.E.2d 341, 344 (1992), disapproved of on other grounds, Walker v. Estate of Mays, 279 Ga. 652, 619 S.E.2d 679 (2005). (3) Bradley v. Frank, 264 Ga. App. 772, 773(1), 592 S.E.2d 138 (2003). (4) O.C.G.A. § 13-2-2(1). (5) Martin v. Martin, 254 Ga. 376, 329 S.E.2d 503 (1985). (6) Christian v. Christian, 300 Ga. 263, 794 S.E.2d 51 (2016).