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In re Estate of Boyd

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Third Division

March 15, 2017


          MILLER, P. J., MCFADDEN, P. J., and MCMILLIAN, J.

          McMillian, Judge.

         After Emmett Boyd ("Emmett") died, Betty Boyd ("Betty") petitioned the probate court for a year's support. Charlie Boyd ("Charlie"), Emmett's son from a prior marriage, filed a caveat based on a post-nuptial agreement entered into by Emmett and Betty some years earlier. The case was transferred to the Superior Court of Camden County, which granted summary judgment to Charlie, denied summary judgment to Betty, and dismissed her petition. On appeal, Betty concedes that the post-nuptial agreement is enforceable; however, she raises three related enumerations of error, contending that enforcement of the agreement should not bar her from recovering what she seeks in her petition. Because the trial court failed to properly construe the terms of the agreement and Betty's purported waiver of a year's support, we vacate the judgment and remand for further proceedings.

         We review a grant of summary judgment de novo, viewing the evidence and all reasonable conclusions or inferences drawn from it in the light most favorable to the nonmovant. Dewrell Sacks, LLP v. Chicago Title Ins. Co., 324 Ga.App. 219, 220 (749 S.E.2d 802) (2013). So viewed, the evidence shows that, in January 1987, Emmett and Betty were married in Camden County, Georgia. Both Emmett and Betty had been married previously and had children from their earlier marriages. Following a brief separation after 15 years of marriage, the parties reconciled and entered into a post-nuptial agreement (the "Agreement") in November 2002. In negotiating and entering into the Agreement, both parties were represented by independent counsel. The Agreement contemplates the manner in which assets will be distributed if the parties were married at the time of either party's death, [1] and it also provides for the distribution of assets if the parties separated or filed for divorce prior to either party's death.[2]

         In February 2015, Emmett left the marital residence in Woodbine, Georgia, to go to Tallahassee, Florida, where his son Charlie lived. Betty and Charlie dispute whether Emmett intended to simply visit his son in Tallahassee or whether he intended to separate from his wife and move there. It is undisputed, however, that after Emmett arrived in Tallahassee, he moved into an assisted living facility, where he briefly resided until his death.

         In late February 2015, a Georgia divorce attorney was contacted about representing Emmett in a divorce proceeding.[3] Although the two never met in person, the attorney spoke with Emmett over the phone about his reasons for seeking a divorce. The attorney later averred that she found Emmett to have a firm grasp of the facts and a full understanding of why he wanted a divorce.[4] On April 27, 2015, the lawyer provided Emmett with a copy of the draft complaint for divorce and reviewed each paragraph with him over the phone to obtain his approval. The lawyer forwarded the draft complaint to Emmett with a verification for his signature, which was executed on April 28, 2015, in the presence of a notary public.[5] The lawyer mailed the verified complaint for divorce to the Superior Court of Camden County on Thursday, April 30, 2015. The next day, Emmett's health declined, and he was admitted to the hospital. On Monday, May 4, 2015 at 9:30 a.m., the Clerk of Court for the Superior Court of Camden County file stamped the divorce complaint. Unfortunately, just hours later, Emmett passed away at the age of 91 as the result of cardiopulmonary arrest and dementia.

         Following Emmett's death, Betty filed a Petition for a Year's Support in the Probate Court of Camden County, Georgia (the "Petition"). Attached to the Petition was a Schedule of Real and Personal Property listing the property and sums Betty proposed to receive. In particular, Betty listed the marital residence, the furniture located therein, and certain stocks and cash identified in the Agreement. In response to Betty's Petition, Charlie filed a caveat and objection, claiming that the Agreement barred Betty from receiving the items she sought through her Petition.

         Both parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment, in which they expressly admitted the validity of the Agreement, but disputed which paragraph of the Agreement should govern the distribution of assets after Emmett's death. Specifically, Betty sought enforcement of Paragraph 3 of the Agreement, under which she could inherit Emmett's one-half interest in the marital residence. Charlie, on the other hand, argued that Paragraph 7 of the Agreement controls and provides that Betty is entitled to only one-half of the assets listed on Exhibit D upon the separation of the parties or filing for divorce by Emmett - which he argued would prevent Betty from obtaining Emmett's one-half interest in the marital residence as a year's support.

          Following oral argument on the parties' cross-motions, the trial court granted Charlie's motion for summary judgment, denied Betty's motion for summary judgment, and dismissed Betty's Petition. The superior court specifically found that Emmett's filing for divorce triggered application of Paragraph 7 of the Agreement, which prohibited Betty from inheriting what she sought through her Petition. This appeal followed.

         At the outset, we note that Betty attempts to recover from Emmett's estate by claiming a year's support, which under Georgia law entitles a surviving spouse to support and maintenance for 12 months following the other spouse's death. OCGA § 53-3-1 (c). A contractual agreement to waive this right to claim a year's support, however, can be valid in Georgia. See Hiers v. Estate of Hiers, 278 Ga.App. 242, 244-45 (1) (628 S.E.2d 653) (2006). When enforcing a post-nuptial contract, such as the Agreement here, courts are to enforce the contract as written by the parties. Eversbusch v. Eversbusch, 293 Ga. 60, 62 (1) (743 S.E.2d 418) (2013). In doing so,

[w]e follow a three-step process in construing a contract, first determining if the contract language is clear and unambiguous. When a contract contains no ambiguity, the court simply enforces the contract according to its clear terms; the contract alone is looked to for its meaning. If, however, the contract is unclear, we attempt to resolve the ambiguity by applying the rules of contract construction. Where the contract remains ambiguous even after we apply the rules of construction, then the parties' intent must be determined by the factfinder.

(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Global Ship Systems, LLC v. Continental Cas. Co., 292 Ga.App. 214, 215-16 (1) (663 S.E.2d 826) (2008). Under Georgia law, a contract is unambiguous when it is capable of only one reasonable interpretation, and, if there is no ambiguity, the contract is enforced according to its plain terms. Freund v. Warren, 320 Ga.App. 765, 768-69 (1) (740 S.E.2d 727) (2013). When determining the meaning of the words used in a contract, the words will "generally bear their usual and common meaning and the usual and common meaning of a word may be supplied by common dictionaries." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Global Ship Systems, 292 Ga.App. at 216 (1).

         This case is undoubtedly unique, given the narrow window of time between the filing of the divorce complaint with the Clerk and Emmett's death merely hours later. We recognize that it is unfortunate that the analysis as to which provision of the Agreement was triggered hinges on a few short hours of a decades-long marriage; however, we must construe the Agreement pursuant to its terms. Freund, 320 Ga.App. at 768-69 (1). Turning to the language at issue, Paragraph 7 provides:

In the event that either Wife or Husband moves from the residence and resides separately from the other or in the event that either of them files a divorce action against the other, then they each agree that [1] they will receive as full, final and complete settlement of any claims for alimony, support, or division of property from the other one-half of all items remaining on Exhibit "D" as they may change from time to time with sales and/or purchases and [2] ...

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