Ambiguous Marital Dissolution Agreement Won’t Support Civil Contempt in Williamson County, Tennessee: Scobey v. Scobey

Facts: Husband and Wife settled their divorce after 20 years of marriage.

Their marital dissolution agreement contained this paragraph 13:

13. Retirement/pension plans: Upon entry of Final Decree of Divorce, one half of the funds and assets in the T. Rowe Price Roth IRA account ending in #5830, styled in the name of Husband, shall be, and is hereby, transferred to Wife, and said one half shall be divested out of Husband and vested absolutely in Wife.

Both parties testified that the “account ending in #5830” did not refer to an account number, but instead referred to an investor number. The investor number covered 12 accounts, some of which were retirement accounts, some of which were non-retirement brokerage accounts, and some of which were Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts for the benefit of the children.

It is undisputed that Husband divided the two retirement accounts in accordance with paragraph 13 but he did not divide the non-retirement account. Husband testified that he assumed paragraph 13 only addressed the retirement accounts managed by T. Rowe Price under that investor number.

Wife petitioned to have Husband found in civil contempt for failing to transfer half of the non-retirement portion of the T. Rowe Price account to her as required by paragraph 13 of the MDA. She also sought attorney’s fees per the MDA’s enforcement provision.

The trial court found the parties intended to divide both the retirement and non-retirement assets equally and that Husband fully understood this intent. Husband was found in civil contempt and ordered to be incarcerated until he pays Wife one half the value of the non-retirement funds contained in the account at the time of the divorce plus interest.

Husband appealed.

On Appeal: The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court.

Husband argued the marital dissolution agreement was not clear or specific enough to warrant a finding of contempt.

In order to prevail on a civil contempt claim, the plaintiff must establish four elements.

First, the plaintiff must establish that the order alleged to have been violated is lawful. An order is lawful if it is issued by a court with jurisdiction over both the subject matter of the case and the parties.

Second, the plaintiff must establish that the order is clear, specific, and unambiguous. 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 a reasonable person to know exactly what actions are required or forbidden.

Third, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant actually violated the order.

Fourth, the plaintiff must prove that the violation of the order was willful. If a person knows what he or she is doing and intends to do what he or she is doing, then that person is acting willfully.

If the court determines that a party has willfully violated a lawful and unambiguous order, the court may, in its discretion, hold the party in civil contempt.

The Court agreed that the MDA was too ambiguous to justify a civil contempt finding:

The provision of the order at issue addresses “retirement” assets managed by T. Rowe Price under “account ending in #5830.” The prime reserve account is identified on the T. Rowe Price statement as a “nonretirement” account with an “account number” that does not end in 5830, although the “investor number” does end in 5830. The evidence admitted at trial showed that T. Rowe Price managed 12 accounts for the parties, some of which were retirement accounts, some of which were nonretirement accounts, and some of which were UTMA accounts. The MDA was divided into sections which separately addressed retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, and that UTMA accounts. Thus, there was some discrepancy between the numbers and names used to describe the accounts on the T. Rowe Price statement and the numbers and names used to describe the accounts in the MDA. This discrepancy created an ambiguity. Of course, this ambiguity could be clarified by going beyond the four corners of the order to ascertain the parties’ intentions but the courts are not permitted to go beyond the four corners of the order in contempt cases to clarify an ambiguity. Accordingly, we are unable to conclude that the terms as expressed in the order, as they pertain to the nonretirement account, are clear, specific, and unambiguous.

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[T]he order must precisely explain the details of compliance in a way that will enable a reasonable person to know exactly what actions are required or forbidden. We have concluded that the order, as it pertains to the non-retirement [] account, fails to satisfy this requirement. Therefore, Husband cannot be held in contempt for failing to comply with this provision.

Thus, the trial court’s civil contempt finding was reversed.

Scobery v. Scobey (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Middle Section, September 13, 2017).

Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee 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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