No Civil Contempt From Ambiguous Order in Tennessee Divorce: Buckner v. Brunson

Facts: Husband and Wife divorced in 2007. At the time of divorce, they were still receiving payments from the buyer of a business they sold in 2003. The trial court’s order divided the future payments such that Husband was to pay a portion of the payments to Wife. Seven months after the divorce, Wife filed a motion alleging that Husband was in civil contempt for willfully withholding the court-ordered payments. After a trial, the trial court denied Wife’s motion. Wife appealed.

On Appeal: The Court affirmed the trial court.

The provision at issue from the final decree of divorce provided, in pertinent part:

[T]he parties shall equitably share in the sale proceeds of [the business], as follows: (i) from the monthly payment of $16,800.00, which is currently being received by [Husband], the [Husband] shall remit to [Wife], $1,781 as soon practicable after the first of each month; (ii) beginning in November, 2008, one month after the monthly payment increases to $36,000, the [Husband] shall remit to [Wife] $12,000 as soon as practicable after the first of each month; (iii) in October, 2011, when the final payoff of $1,500,000 is due, [Husband] shall remit to [Wife] an amount equal to one-half (1/2) of the stated payoff amount as soon as practicable after his receipt of same; . . . .

Husband argued the above-quoted language makes clear that the payments to Wife were to be made from the proceeds he received from the sale of the business. Husband proved he had not been receiving regular payments from the buyer. Alternatively, Husband argued the language was ambiguous. Wife argued the language required Husband to pay her regardless of the status of the business or whether Husband was receiving any payments from the sale.

Tennessee law provides that a person may not be held in civil contempt for violating an order unless the order expressly and precisely spells out the details of compliance in a way that will enable reasonable persons to know exactly what actions are required or forbidden. With this principle in mind, the Court reasoned:

We acknowledge that subsection (ii), when read in isolation, does not explicitly state that [Husband] was to pay [Wife] $12,000 from the payment he received from the buyer of [the business]. However, upon reading the entire section, it is clear to this Court that the source of each $12,000 payment was to be the $36,000 payment received by [Husband] from the buyer. The beginning of Section I made clear that it governed how the parties would “equitably share in the sale proceeds of [the business.]” Subsection (i) stated that the $1781 payment to [Wife] was to come “from the monthly payment of $16,800, which [was] being received by [Husband].” Similarly, under subsection (iii), [Husband] was required to pay [Wife] one-half “of the stated payoff amount as soon as practicable after his receipt of same.” Although subsection (ii) did not use such explicit language, it did provide that the increase in payments to [Wife] would occur “after the monthly payment increases to $36,000.” Reading this section as a whole, we do not interpret it as requiring [Husband] to pay $12,000 to [Wife] regardless of what he was receiving from the buyer.

The Court concluded that the divorce decree did not impose an obligation upon Husband to pay $12,000 to Wife if he was not receiving the $36,000 payment from the buyer of the business. The Court further determined that, at the very least, this is a “reasonable interpretation” of the divorce decree, so that Husband could not be held in contempt for his alleged violation of the order.

Buckner v. Brunson (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, March 2, 2012).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Matrimonial, Divorce and Family Law Attorney.

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K.O. Herston is a family-law attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee whose practice is devoted exclusively to family law, including divorce, child custody, child support, alimony, prenuptial agreements, and other aspects of family law.

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