Hardman v. HardmanAnnotate this Case
William Hardman III (Father) appealed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment and award of attorney fees to Mary Hardman (Mother), in an action he filed for declaratory judgment and contempt based on the parties' divorce decree. The parties were married in 1992 and divorced in 2013. They have three children, including twin boys who were minors. Under the settlement agreement, Father and Mother shared joint legal custody of the minor children, while Mother had primary physical custody. As joint legal custodians, the parties were to participate jointly in decisions regarding, among other issues, the children’s education, including the choice of schools. The settlement agreement required Father to pay Mother $7,000 per month plus a percentage of his gross annual income over a certain threshold. Before the divorce proceedings, the parties paid the private school tuition for the twins using joint marital funds, with Father generally writing the check. After the divorce, Mother refused to pay the tuition from her support payments, and threatened to move the children to a public school in North Carolina, where she lived, unless Father paid it. Father made an advance tuition payment of $9,453.56 so the boys could enroll for the 2013-2014 school year; he then filed a complaint seeking reimbursement and a declaratory judgment as to whether Mother was required to pay the tuition out of her $7,000 monthly alimony payments and whether she could remove the children to school in another state. The complaint also sought an order enjoining Mother from removing the boys from the private school, asked that Mother be held in contempt, and requested attorney fees. The trial court entered an order granting Mother’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that Father’s action was barred by the doctrine of res judicata. The court concluded that, if Father “intended for [Mother] to pay the private school costs out of the alimony he pays her each month, he should have written that intent in the Settlement Agreement” rather than trying to “relitigate the Settlement Agreement in order to supplement its terms.” The court also rejected Father’s argument that he needed clarification of the settlement agreement, noting that “[s]imply writing that [Father] has final authority on educational issues does not create an ambiguity as to payment of private school tuition.” Finally, after finding that Father’s complaint for declaratory judgment and his action for contempt “lacked substantial justification,” the court granted Mother’s motion for attorney fees and ordered Father to pay $5,500 to Mother’s counsel. The Supreme Court affirmed in part, and reversed in part, following Father's appeal. Given the plain language of the settlement agreement, the trial court erred in granting Mother summary judgment on Father’s request for a declaration that the divorce decree precluded Mother from unilaterally changing the children’s school. The trial court also erred in granting summary judgment to Mother on the issue of whether the divorce decree required her to pay the children’s private school tuition. The court’s conclusion that Father “should have specifically addressed [Mother]’s obligation to pay for private school if that is what he intended” had it backwards: it was Mother who needed to have the settlement agreement (as well as the child support worksheet) specify that Father would pay for private school, if she wanted to alter the legal presumption that the custodial parent would pay that child-rearing expense. The trial court properly held that Father’s contempt claim was made in “anticipation” of Mother’s contempt, since she had not actually changed the children’s school and thus had not even arguably violated the divorce decree in that respect.