Some spouses divorce and are never in court again. Others seem to be there all time, often in a continuous cycle of contempt cases. Such is the case of Jones v. Jones, recently heard in the Supreme Court of Georgia. Jones v. Jones, S15A1927, S15A1928 (March 25, 2016). In that case, the parties divorced in 1998, with the Wife being awarded primary custody of the parties’ three children and the Husband required to pay child support. In 2004, the Husband was found in contempt of his child support obligation and the trial court set his arrearage at $121,573.76 (including interest) (“2004 order”). In 2006, the Wife filed another contempt petition claiming that the Husband had only made one child support payment since the previous contempt action, and had paid nothing toward the arrearage set in that case. He was, therefore, again held in contempt and a new arrearage established (“2007 order”). One short year later, the Husband was incarcerated for his continuing non-compliance and, after paying the Husband paid a purge amount to get out of jail, the Wife filed yet another contempt petition.
Following a hearing on the Wife’s third contempt petition, the trial court entered an order (“2009 order”) recalculating the two previously adjudicated arrearages using new evidence of Husband’s income and payment history, and calculated an arrearage amount for the newest contempt time period for which an arrearage amount had not yet been set. The total arrearage amount was set at $119,924.38 – less than the arrearage from just the first contempt action.
The Wife appealed the 2009 order, arguing that the trial court erred in amending both the 2004 order and 2007 order, and the Supreme Court of Georgia agreed. The Court held that each order constituted a final judgment of contempt on the time periods covered by each order. (Though the 2007 order actually contained errors as it improperly modified the 2004 order, it was never appealed or set aside and, as such, it is entitled to enforcement.) In issuing the 2009 order, the trial court “in effect reopened the evidence regarding Husband’s payment history and income dating back to 1998, thus essentially retrying Wife’s previous contempt actions far beyond the time period in which such a proceeding was authorized.” Accordingly, the Georgia Supreme Court reversed the 2009 order as to the amounts owed before 2007 and affirmed the arrearages set out in the 2007 order as conclusive on the amounts owed up until that time. In addition, the Court found that the amount owed after 2007 was not calculated according to the parties’ divorce decree and, thus, reversed and remanded that issue to the trial court for recalculation.
The important thing to remember about contempt actions is, even though it may seem like you are on court over and over on the same issue, teach contempt action is actually unique and subject to it’s own order, which must follow the terms of the divorce decree. Thus, make sure you bring all evidence to each proceeding.