Interpretation of Marital Dissolution Agreement Examined in Memphis, Tennessee Postdivorce Dispute: Pratt v. Pratt

June 1, 2023 K.O. Herston 0 Comments

Facts: When Mother and Father divorced over 20 years ago, their marital dissolution agreement said:

The parties agree that [Father] shall be responsible for the [Son’s] college tuition, expenses, room and board. [Father] is obligated to pay tuition up to tuition comparable with the University of Tennessee at Knoxville at the time [Son] begins college.

After graduating high school, Son enrolled at the University of Mississippi, and Father paid for Son’s tuition, on-campus housing, and meal plan. However, Son did not complete the semester because of his struggle with drugs and was admitted to several rehabilitation programs.

Son enrolled at Tennessee Tech the following year. Son sought reimbursement from Father for pet supplies, vaping supplies, party supplies, his girlfriend’s Internet bill, Xbox expenses, a $600 grill, expenses for his “DJ business,” and gifts and travel expenses for his girlfriend.

Father petitioned for a declaratory judgment, asking the trial court to declare his obligations under the marital dissolution agreement. Father alleged that Son confessed he was again using and selling drugs, failing several classes, and did not take his midterm exams. Father claimed that Son refused to live on campus because Mother convinced him Father was legally obligated to pay all his expenses if he was “enrolled in a college.” Father asked the court to declare that he was only responsible for tuition and fees, required books and supplies, campus housing, college meal plans, parking passes, and the like. Father also asked the court to terminate his obligation.

The trial court found the word “expenses” was ambiguous and required interpretation. Mother argued it included all expenses, no matter what they are or for how long they might last, as long as Son is enrolled in college. Father replied that he intended to pay “traditional” expenses, such as housing in a dorm, meal plans, and required fees.

The trial court found Mother’s interpretation was unreasonable. It ordered Father to be responsible for

  • tuition for a maximum of five years for spring and fall semesters,
  • fees associated with classes,
  • reimbursement for meal expenses up to the amount of the most basic meal card at the University of Tennessee, and
  • rent not to exceed the cost of a shared dorm at the University of Tennessee.

The trial court did not mention Father’s request for termination of his obligation, but it did say that all matters not ruled upon were denied.

On Appeal: The Court vacated the trial court’s ruling and remanded the case for more findings.

The Court found the trial court did not explicitly rule on Father’s request to terminate his obligation under the marital dissolution agreement (“MDA”):

The first issue Father raises on appeal is whether he has satisfied his obligation under the terms of the MDA for payment of college tuition, room and board, and expenses. Father argues, “Given the time that has elapsed, the circumstances of the case, and the continued litigation, this Court should find that Father has satisfied his obligation under the provision of the parties’ MDA.” He argues that Son “had continued issues with drug abuse and was not committed to completing college,” as he failed or dropped numerous classes. Unfortunately, the trial court’s orders failed to mention this issue. The trial court’s initial order described Father’s petition for declaratory judgment as one “to determine the meaning of the word ‘expenses’ in the MDA.” The trial court never mentioned Father’s additional request that the trial court “terminate his obligation” in light of Son’s circumstances and declare that he had “fulfilled his obligation under the MDA.” Thus, we have no ruling by the trial court to review regarding this issue.

The record reveals that Father’s specifically stated during his testimony at trial that he was asking the court to provide guidance on the reasonableness of the provision of the MDA in light of the evidence in this case and to determine if he “should continue to be required to pay for [Son’s] tuition.” Father testified that Son had attempted 64 credit hours but only earned 28 credits, and he had never been reimbursed for classes Son failed or dropped. He said Son was still classified as “a three-year freshman” at age 21. Father testified that he had recently had a conversation with Son in which Son admitted “that fall semester of 2019 was intentionally failed to prove a point, so he took four F’s and failed the semester.” Based on that conversation, Father did not believe that Son was truly interested in going to college, as he wanted to “be a deejay” and go on tour.

Although one might argue that the trial court implicitly rejected Father’s request to terminate his obligation by making a ruling regarding what expenses he must pay, it is equally plausible that the trial court simply overlooked Father’s request. As it is, we are left to wonder why the trial court proceeded as it did.

The Court found that the trial court orders do not include sufficient findings and conclusions regarding Father’s request for the trial court to terminate his obligation, so the trial court orders were vacated and remanded for additional findings.

K.O.’s Comment: Agreements to pay college expenses are voluntary contractual obligations outside the scope of the legal duty to support one’s child. They have an implied condition of reasonableness and are subject to the same rules of contract interpretation that apply to any other contract. Attorneys must take great care in drafting these provisions because they are not subject to modification by the court. I don’t see how the trial court can terminate Father’s obligation other than to find its continuation unreasonable under the circumstances.

Source: Pratt v. Pratt (Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, May 24, 2023).

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Interpretation of Marital Dissolution Agreement Examined in Memphis, Tennessee Postdivorce Dispute: Pratt v. Pratt was last modified: May 29th, 2023 by K.O. Herston

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