Hardman v. Hardman

The Georgia Supreme Court has held recently that the Fulton County Superior Court erred in applying the doctrine of res judicata “mechanically” in a divorce case, particularly involving child support issues, and ruled in favor of a father who elected to send the couple’s children to private school at his ex-wife’s expense.

When William and May Ann Hardman divorced in 2013, they had three children, one of whom was attending college and the other two were minor twin boys.  The settlement agreement, which was incorporated into the final divorce decree, gave the parties joint legal custody, and Mother primary physical custody.  The parties were to participate jointly in decisions regarding the children’s welfare, but in the event of a disagreement regarding their education, Father was given final decision making authority.

The parties’ oldest child had attended Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School, a private school for grades 6-12.  The two minor children began attending the same school in 2010, and in 2013, the combined tuition for the two minor children was just over $2,600 per month.  Before the divorce, the tuition was paid from marital funds with Father usually writing the check.  After the divorce, Mother refused to pay the tuition and threatened to move the boys to public school in North Carolina (where she lived) unless Father paid it.

Father made an advance tuition payment so the boys could enroll for the 2013-2014 school year, and then filed a complaint seeking reimbursement and a declaratory judgment as to whether 1) Mother should be allowed to remove the children to a school in another state, and 2) whether she should be required to pay the tuition from her $7000 monthly alimony.  No child support payments had been ordered, and the child support worksheet did not include any deviation for extraordinary educational expenses.

On December 30, 2013, the trial court in Fulton County granted Mother’s motion for summary judgment on the ground that Father’s action should be barred under the doctrine of res judicata, which means simply that the issue had been decided already.   In other words, the trial court reasoned that if Father had intended for Mother to pay the tuition out of the alimony she receives, he should have written that intent into the settlement agreement instead of trying to “re-litigate” it in order to supplement its terms.

In its decision dated 9/22/2014, the Georgia Supreme Court disagreed, saying that the trial court “has it backwards.”  Given the presumption in Georgia that the custodial parent pays for educational expenses, it was Mother who needed t have the settlement agreement specify that Father should pay the tuition if she wanted a provision contrary to the legal presumption.

In its decision, the Court pointed out the Father was entitled to litigate this matter because the divorce decree gave him the final decision making authority in the children’s education, and Mother had threatened to change their school against his wishes.

From a legal standpoint, this case is significant because of the emphasis the Georgia Supreme Court placed on prior case law instructing that res judicata should not be applied “mechanically” in divorce and alimony cases, and be less strictly applied in cases dealing with child support issues.

From a more practical standpoint, the case illustrates the difficulty inherent when decision making authority set forth in settlement agreements does not mesh with the responsibility to pay the expenses associated therewith.  In other words, when one party is allowed to make decisions for which the other party has to pay.  It also solidifies the legal presumption in Georgia that the custodial parent is responsible for payment of expenses related to the children unless otherwise specifically addressed on the child support worksheet, settlement agreement and divorce decree.

This summary was prepared by employees of IAG Forensics and Valuation, and should not be used as legal authority for any purpose.  For the text of the decision, please refer to Hardman v. Hardman, S14A1187, slip op. (Ga. Sept. 22, 2014), http://www.gasupreme.us/sc-op/pdf/s14a1187.pdf 

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