Evaluating Contempt of Settlement Agreements Incorporated in Divorce Decrees
Actions seeking redress for a former spouse’s alleged violation of a divorce decree seem commonplace. Yet, while a court ordinarily possesses wide discretion to determine whether a party is in contempt of its decree, the process the court must undertake to determine the meaning of its judgment differs when the judgment incorporates a settlement agreement of the parties. This article explores the standards which govern the determination of an alleged contempt of a divorce decree incorporating a settlement agreement of the parties.
Three basic principles govern a trial court’s evaluation of contempt allegations: the court has wide discretion to determine whether its divorce decrees and other orders have been violated and to ensure compliance with the intent and spirit of its decrees; the court is not authorized to modify a previous decree in a contempt order; and the court always retains the authority to interpret and clarify its own orders.(1) “The test for distinguishing whether a trial court’s ruling clarifies, rather than impermissibly modifies, a divorce decree, is whether the clarification is reasonable or whether it is so contrary to the apparent intention of the original order as to amount to a modification.”(2)
When a divorce decree incorporates a settlement agreement of the parties, the court must ascertain the intent of the parties in order to determine whether a willful violation of the spirit and intent of the decree has occurred.(3) How the court makes that determination depends on the clarity of the provision(s) at issue. On the one hand, if the language of the settlement agreement appears clear and unambiguous, the court must look to the wording of the agreement alone to determine the parties’ intent.(4) On the other hand, if the settlement agreement seems susceptible to two reasonable interpretations after applying rules of contract construction, the court must consider evidence outside the agreement itself (i.e., parol evidence) to determine the intent of the parties.(5)
Various rules of contract construction apply to a trial court’s analysis of intent. If the parties’ intent differs, “the meaning placed on the contract by one party and known to be thus understood by the other party at the time shall be held as the true meaning.”(6) Where the parties share an interpretation of an agreement, their shared understanding is entitled to great, if not controlling, influence, particularly when their interpretation occurs before any controversy, or when the construction of one party appears contrary to his interest.(7) When analyzing ambiguous terms of an agreement, the court should look to the entirety of the agreement to determine the parties’ intent, in a manner that permits all of the agreement’s terms to be consistent with one another.(8) The trial court, when construing provisions of an agreement, should avoid a construction that would render other provisions of the agreement meaningless.(9) If the trial court cannot resolve ambiguities in the provision(s) at issue by viewing it/them in the context of the entire settlement agreement, the court must then consider parol evidence to determine the meaning of the provision(s) at issue.(10)
Perhaps the most common examples of impermissible modifications of divorce decrees are seen in proceedings alleging contempt of agreements for equitable division of real estate. Settlement agreements which award jointly-titled real estate to one spouse often require the other spouse to execute a Quitclaim Deed and the receiving spouse to refinance the property, so as to remove the conveying spouse from the mortgage. If the receiving spouse violates the incorporated settlement agreement by failing to timely refinance the property, a court cannot require that party to sell the property, in order to purge the contempt, if the settlement agreement did not require him/her to sell the property.(11) Likewise, if an incorporated settlement agreement requires the parties to sell their real property, a trial court on a contempt motion cannot give one party the option to refinance the property instead.(12) In both of the above situations, appellate courts have deemed the trial courts’ contempt rulings as impermissible modifications of the divorce decrees.(13)
On appeal of a ruling finding or refusing to find a party in contempt of a divorce decree, a trial court’s decision ordinarily will be affirmed if there is any evidence to support the court’s determination. But where a contempt action turns on the meaning of terms in an incorporated settlement agreement, construction of those terms becomes a question of law subject to de novo review on appeal.(14)
(1) Chatel v. Carroll, No. A22A1336, 1, 5 (Ga. Ct. App., February 6, 2023), citing Vaughn v. Vaughn, 365 Ga.App. 195, 198(1), 877 S.E.2d 860 (2022); Sutherlin v. Sutherlin, 301 Ga. 581, 582, 802 S.E.2d 204 (2017); and Darroch v. Willis, 286 Ga. 566, 570(3), 690 S.E.2d 410 (2010). (2) Chatel, supra, at 5(1), citing Mims v. Mims, 297 Ga. 70, 73, 772 S.E.2d 674 (2015); and Cason v. Cason, 281 Ga. 296, 297(1), 637 S.E.2d 716 (2006). (3) Sutherlin, supra, 301 Ga. at 584; and O.C.G.A. § 13-2-3. (4) Sutherlin, supra, 301 Ga. at 584-585; and O.C.G.A. § 13-2-3. See also Gilreath v. Conner, 361 Ga.App. 201, 204(1), 863 S.E.2d 555 (2021). (5) Christian v. Christian, 300 Ga. 263, 266-267(2), 794 S.E.2d 51 (2016). (6) O.C.G.A. § 13-2-4; and Eickhoff v. Eickhoff, 263 Ga. 498, 505(6), 435 S.E.2d 914 (1993), overruled on other grounds by Lee v. Green Land Co., 272 Ga. 107, 108, 527 S.E.2d 204 (2000). (7) Eickhoff, supra, 263 Ga. 498 at 505(6). See also McKinley v. Coliseum Health Group, 308 Ga.App. 768, 771(1), 708 S.E.2d 682 (2011). (8) Sutherlin, supra, 301 Ga. at 585. (9) Id., 301 Ga. at 586. (10) Christian, supra, 300 Ga. at 267(2) (11) See Darroch, supra, 286 Ga. at 569-571(3); and Borotkanics v. Humphrey, 344 Ga.App. 875, 811 S.E.2d 523, 526(2) (2018). (12) Vaughn, supra, 365 Ga.App. at 198-199(1). (13) Vaughn, supra, 365 Ga.App. at 198-199(1); Darroch, supra, 286 Ga. at 569-571(3); and Borotkanics, supra, 811 S.E.2d at 526(2). (14) Sutherlin, supra, 301 Ga. at 582. See also Chatel, supra, at *1, citing Vaughn, supra, 365 Ga.App. at 198(1).