When a person violates a Georgia divorce decree or child custody order, the offended party typically responds with a contempt action against the violator. A finding of contempt, however, requires willful violation of a clearly-stated obligation.(1) Contempt claims should not be available in situations where the parties dispute the meaning of a judgment. Instead, in those cases, a declaratory judgment action may be appropriate. This article explores the use of declaratory judgments to clarify disputed interpretations and obligations of divorce and custody decrees.
Our State Declaratory Judgment Act grants designated courts, the “power, upon petition or other appropriate pleading, to declare rights and other legal relations of any interested party petitioning for such declaration, whether or not further relief is or could be prayed” in “cases of actual controversy” or “in any civil case in which it appears to the court that the ends of justice require that the declaration should be made.”(2) The Act’s explicit purpose seeks “to settle and afford relief from uncertainty and insecurity with respect to rights, status, and other legal relations…”(3)
Georgia appellate decisions have expressly designated an action for a declaratory judgment as an appropriate vehicle to clarify the meaning or application of a previously existing court order, including a divorce decree, and to clarify one’s rights and duties under a divorce decree or other order that contains unclear or ambiguous language.(4)
Examples of domestic disputes with actual controversies meriting declaratory relief include cases in which: a father having final decision-making authority for the children’s education under a divorce decree sought a declaratory judgment that the mother could not move the children to a new school over father’s objection, as mother nonetheless asserted she could do(5); a father and mother disputed whether a provision in their divorce decree stating that mother would pay child support to father if their son elected to live with father, when son turned fourteen, created a self-executing child support obligation upon that event or required father to first file an action to modify the divorce decree upon the child’s custodial election(6); and a mother sought a ruling that a parenting plan’s requirement for each parent to select two consecutive weeks of uninterrupted summer parenting time with the children obligated father to choose consecutive weeks and not daily increments, after father first argued that the provision allowed him to pick up to fourteen random days during the summer, and then chose nine days or two days instead of consecutive weeks, despite conceding that the parenting plan required him to select summer visitation in a consecutive two-week block(7).
(1) Greene v. Greene, 306 Ga.App. 296, 300, 701 S.E.2d 911 (2010); Saravia v. Mendoza, 303 Ga.App. 758, 763(2), 695 S.E.2d 47 (2010); and Pate v. Pate, 280 Ga. 796, 798(3), 631 S.E.2d 103 (2006); and Hughes v. Browne, 217 Ga. App. 567, 568(1), 459 S.E.2d 170 (1995). (2) O.C.G.A. § 9-4-2(a) and (b). (3) O.C.G.A. § 9-4-1. (4) See Merchant Law Firm, P.C. v. Emerson, 301 Ga. 609, 616(2)(b), 800 S.E.2d 557 (2017); Weaver v. Jones, 260 Ga. 493, 493(1), 396 S.E.2d 890 (1990); and Brown v. Brown, A21A0122 (Ga. Ct. App., April 13, 2021). (5) Hardman v. Hardman, 295 Ga. 732, 735-736(3)(a), 763 S.E.2d 861 (2014). (6) Weaver, supra. (7) Brown, supra.