Morgan v. Morgan, S10A1365
*All courts mentioned are at the state level.
- Husband and Wife divorced in 2007 by Decree, incorporating a settlement agreement. H was member of U.S. Navy. Agreement stated that, upon H’s retirement, W was entitled to only the portion of his retirement benefits that Navy required be paid to her. If such payments were required, H agreed to sign all documents to ensure W received them.
- After entry of Decree, parties realized Navy did not require any portion of H’s benefits be paid to W, and Navy had no legal authority to allocate benefits between ex-spouses.
- W then sought H’s agreement to an Agreed Domestic Relations Order (ADRO) that stated W would receive 50% of “marital portion” of H’s retirement benefits. H refused to sign.
- W petitioned court hold H in contempt for refusing to sign ADRO, or in the alternative, requested the Decree be set aside based on mutual mistake of Navy’s authority.
- After hearing, trial court found parties had a mutual misunderstanding of Navy’s rules. Trial court declined to set aside the decree, instead declaring the agreement ambiguous on this point. Trial court then used its ‘powers to interpret,’ and, based on the roughly equal division of other marital assets, determined that the parties intended to divide the marital portion of H’s retirement pay equally. Because parties intended for W to share in H’s retirement benefits, trial court held H in contempt for refusing to sign the ADRO.
- A party cannot be held in contempt of an order unless the order informs him in definite terms as to the duties imposed upon him. Provisions of Decree must be sufficiently specific to be enforced by contempt. Because trial court expressly found the provision ambiguous, contempt ruling was error. Trial court also erroneously modified the terms of the Decree, and therefore the basis for contempt was vitiated.
- The trial court did more than construe or clarify the agreement; it eschewed the plain language (that W gets only what Navy requires) and substituted a 50% allocation.
- A court can perform a calculation based on an already agreed upon allocation (as in Cason v. Cason, 281 Ga. 296 (2006)), but a court cannot determine the allocation itself.
- While the parties’ reliance on an erroneous understanding of Navy rules was ill-advised, the trial court cannot use a contempt proceeding to substantially alter the decree, no matter how reasonable a 50% allocation may be.
- Supreme Court noted that W still has recourse on remand to address uncertain allocation of H’s military retirement benefits, as the trial court may consider anew Wife’s alternative motion to set aside the Decree. Smith v. Smith, 281 Ga. 204 (2006) (Decree with erroneous provisions may be challenged via motion to set aside).
Other cases on impermissible modification of Settlement Agreement:
- Darroch v. Willis, 286 Ga. 566(3) (2010): Where the Agreement requires only that H remove W’s name from mortgage, the court ordering the sale of the residence in a contempt action is an improper modification of the Agreement.
- Roquemore v. Burgess, 281 Ga. 593 (2007): The court cannot modify a settlement agreement by requiring the payment of an agreed-upon sum out of the proceeds from the sale of marital residence, where the plain language of the Agreement did not so require.
- Wayne D. Keaton for appellant
- Sherri E. Kelley for appellee
Paulding Superior Court, Judge Tonny S. Beavers