Be Neutral
A Publication of the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution

Case Watch For Mediators:
Trial Courts Have Much Discretion in Interpreting Terms of Divorce

The following case analyses are part of a regular series we publish to help neutrals broaden their knowledge of rulings of Georgia’s appellate courts that may affect your practice. Remember: mediators should not give legal advice or opinions

Review of Hamilton v. Hamilton, decided November 19, 2012, appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court of a ruling by Judge Christopher C. Edwards, Fayette County Superior Court.

Hamilton v. Hamilton is a case of “if it doesn’t prohibit it, it must allow it.”  Contempt action filed by Husband.  23 years of marriage.  One minor child. Husband agreed to pay for child’s college.

The original decree provided: Husband to pay Wife $6,000 a month in alimony as long as the child was enrolled in college full time and “in good standing” from June 1, 2009, until May 31, 2013.  Otherwise, the Husband was to pay Wife $4,000 a month until May 31, 2013.  Wife was to notify Husband of any change in the child’s enrollment that could trigger a change in status.  Any overpayment was stipulated to be fully reimbursable to Husband plus a 10 percent interest penalty “in the event Wife knowingly failed to inform husband.”

The facts you and the Supreme Court have to work with are:

  Child’s college report card from Georgia Southern University, beginning Fall 2009 for three semesters, showed GPA of 1.0; 0.40, and 1.30.
  In Spring 2011, Child moved to Jefferson State University, where he achieved a GPA of 4.0.
  In February 2011, Husband reduced his alimony payments to $4,000 a month and filed for contempt.

At the contempt hearing, the trial court did an offset.  It found Wife received overpayment of $26,000; however, as child regained good standing, the $6,000 alimony obligation should have been reinstated for June through October 2011.  Since Husband only paid $4,000 those five months, he owed Wife a deficiency of $10,000.  This reduced Wife’s outstanding amount due to Husband to $16,000.

AND, the trial court relieved Husband from paying alimony to wife until the $16,000 balance was paid.

Husband cried FOUL.  He alleged that the court’s ruling modified the terms of his divorce decree.  Evidently he believed that once his monthly payment went down, it should stay down.  He alleged that the trial court lacked the authority to modify the terms of the divorce decree in his contempt action.

Let’s see how comfortable you would be trying to explain this in mediation.  The Supreme Court wrote:

While the decree is silent as to whether the greater amount of alimony can be reinstated in the      event the child regains good standing, it clearly established husband’s obligation to pay $6,000 to wife for those months when the child is enrolled as a full time student in good standing.

So, the Court surmised:

In light of the parties’ intent for husband to pay the higher alimony amount when the conditions set out in the decree were met and the absence of any language prohibiting reinstatement of the higher amount, we conclude the determination of the trial court was a reasonable clarification of the decree consistent with the intent and spirit of the original decree.

The Court used a 33-year-old case,  Kaufmann v. Kauffman, 246 Ga. 266, which supported the power of the trial court to see that there is compliance with the intent and spirit of its decrees, and no party shall be permitted to take advantage of the letter of a decree to the detriment of the other party.

Intent and spirit provided yet another interpretation.

The University’s own documents provided several possible and inconsistent standards by which to determine “good standing.”  One book stated that “a student shall be in good academic standing unless he/she has been suspended or excluded from the University and not readmitted.”  Another stated that “undergraduates and post-baccalaureate students must maintain a 2.0 minimum total institution GPA to maintain good standing for financial aid and academic purposes.”

The Supreme Court was thus confused as to what constituted “good standing,” and the court ruled that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Husband’s request for an interest penalty and attorney fees.

Once again, it’s this wide discretion given the trial court that parties need to be constantly reminded of in their efforts to reach settlement in mediation.  Just because an agreement says – or in this case, doesn’t say –something doesn’t mean the court’s interpretation is going match what the parties contend.

Instead of telling your parties that there are two sides to every argument, Hamilton shows that you should make sure they know that there are two sides to every ruling depending on who is doing the interpretation.

An interesting point you can tell your parties is that sometimes there are provisions that are not ambiguous, but are ignored.  Witness:  In this case, the order provided for a 10 percent interest penalty “in the event wife knowingly failed to inform husband of a change in status and husband overpaid, the overpayment was fully reimbursable to husband plus a ten percent interest penalty.”  I didn’t see the trial court add any interest, even though it found overpayment.

It would not be stretching logic for you to make the parties aware that often if a court wants to uphold a provision, it will argue that the document states it.  If it doesn’t want to uphold a provision, it will argue for “intent of the ‘parties.”    

It is also interesting that the Court extracts this quote from the 33-year-old Kaufman case:  “no party shall be permitted to take advantage of the letter of a decree to the detriment of the other party.”  I always thought that gaining an advantage to the detriment of your ex was what divorce was all about.



Mary Ellen Cates is an attorney and registered mediator in Avondale Estates, Ga.  She has practiced domestic law exclusively since 1985.  A divorce mediator since 1998, she is also a domestic arbitrator, and she has been appointed as special master for DeKalb County Superior Court.

Phone: 404-292-3803; fax: 404-292-1510; or