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Contempt and Retirement Accounts

The Georgia Supreme Court recently heard a case wherein parties were divorced and the wife was awarded half of the husband’s 401K, which was to be paid to her via a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”). Killingsworth v. Killingsworth, 286 GA. 234 (2009). After the husband failed to comply with provisions of the parties’ divorce decree, the wife filed a motion for contempt against him. The trial court found the husband in contempt, ordering him to pay the wife a cash sum which included the 401K funds. Id. at 235. The husband appealed, alleging that the trial court erred in requiring him to pay the 401K funds in cash, as that was an impermissible modification of the divorce decree.

The Georgia Supreme Court agreed with the husband, stating that “[a] trial court may interpret a divorce decree, or clarify a prior order or judgment, in the course of resolving contempt issues placed before it,” but that “a trial court has no power to modify the terms of a divorce decree in a contempt proceeding.” Id. at 236. The Georgia Supreme Court stated that, since the divorce decree specifically stated that the 401K funds were to be transferred to the wife via QDRO, “transmuting this award into a presently due cash obligation of $ 1,850 was ‘so contrary to the apparent intention of the original order as to amount to a modification.’” Id. The Court reversed the portion of the contempt order requiring the husband to pay the 401K funds to the wife in cash, but adamantly stated that the husband was not relieved of his obligation to transfer the funds to the wife via QDRO. Id.

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