When finalizing the terms of a divorce settlement agreement, it is imperative that both parties (and their attorneys) carefully review the language in the agreement to make sure that it is clear and unambiguous. Language clarity is important because this is the document that governs the parties’ post-divorce life and the parties must fully understand their responsibilities as they relate to support, custody, and equitable distribution. In addition, this is the document the court will look at when determining if a party has failed to comply with his/her responsibilities and is, therefore, in contempt of the agreement.
The Supreme Court of Georgia recently heard a case that hinged on the ambiguity in the parties’ divorce settlement agreement. Coppedge v. Coppedge, S15A1450 (February 22, 2016). In the Coppedge case, the settlement agreement required the husband to pay the wife $2,000 in child support, and included an “Educational Expenses” provision which provided that the $2,000 included “Husband’s proportional shares of a private school education for each Child at St. Luke” as well as “his proportional shares for any amounts paid in connection with either after school or summer care for either or both of the Children.” Id. That provision also described that, if the St. Luke’s expenses (including after school and summer care) increased or decreased for any reason, Husband’s child support payment shall be adjusted accordingly. The Wife subsequently removed the children from St. Luke’s after school and summer care and hired a babysitter to provide this care instead. Accordingly, the Husband reduced the amount of child support “by the amount of his share of the cost of sending the children to after-school and summer care at St. Luke.” The Wife filed for contempt, arguing that the Husband was required to still pay the amount he would have owed if the children were still attending St. Luke’s. After a hearing in which the trial court found the Husband in contempt because the divorce decree did not “confine these parties to St. Luke after care or summer camp, and that [husband] was not entitled to reduce child support without a Court order,” the Husband appealed.
The Supreme Court of Georgia agreed with the Husband and found that the trial court abused its discretion in finding him in contempt. The Court held that the threshold issue was “the parties’ intent with regard to husband’s obligation to pay a proportionate share of the children’s after-school and summer care expenses,” but that the relevant language of the decree as to this issue was ambiguous and “capable of more than one reasonable interpretation.” As such, it was an abuse of discretion by the trial court to hold the Husband in contempt. The Court pointed out that its ruling does not mean that the Husband may not be required to contribute to these expenses – it only means that the language is not definite enough to support a finding of contempt. In other words, the language is not clear enough such that the parties fully and completely understood their responsibilities under the agreement. Thus, the Husband may ultimately be required to contribute, but he cannot be punished for his reasonable interpretation of the agreement.