1999, Robert A. E. Hall, Jr. purchased property in Roswell,
Georgia. In April 2005, after having married Cathleen Mary
Cahill, Hall recorded a quitclaim deed that transferred the
Roswell property to "Robert A. E. Hall, Jr. and Cathleen
M. Cahill as Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship."
Approximately three years later, the couple divorced.
Pursuant to a settlement agreement incorporated into a final
judgment and decree of divorce, Cahill was to have
"exclusive use and possession" of the Roswell
property until she reached the age of 66, at which point the
property would be sold and the net proceeds divided equally
between the parties; the decree dictated that both Hall and
Cahill were to "remain on the title" until the
property was sold. In the following years, Hall failed to pay
federal taxes, and, in February 2013, a notice of federal tax
lien was filed with the Clerk of Superior Court of Fulton
County against "all property and rights belonging"
turned 66 in February 2015 and resided in the property until
her death on April 19, 2015; the property was not listed for
sale before her death. The Estate of Mary Cathleen Cahill
filed a quiet title action against the United States of
America in the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Georgia, seeking a determination that the right
of survivorship was severed before Cahill's death, thus
giving her estate a one-half interest in the property. The
Estate argued that the settlement agreement demonstrated an
intent to sever the joint tenancy, while the Government
argued that the parties' failure to address the issue
amounted to an unambiguous retention of the right of
district court concluded that the settlement agreement was
ambiguous and determined that "substantial
uncertainty" exists as to how Georgia law applies in
this case, asking this Court to address the following
When two people who own a piece of real property as joint
tenants with a right of survivorship are divorced pursuant to
a decree that purports to resolve all issues as to equitable
division of the property between them, grants one party
exclusive use and possession of the real property, directs
that both parties shall remain on the title until it is sold,
and provides that the property shall be placed on the market
some seven years in the future with the net proceeds divided
equally between the parties but which makes no express
reference to severance or retention of the joint tenancy,
what is the effect of that divorce decree on the joint
tenancy and right of survivorship under Georgia law?
we agree with the district court that the relevant portion of
the divorce decree is ambiguous and that such an issue has
never been squarely addressed by this Court, this question
can be resolved through the application of well-established
principles of contract interpretation.
revolutionary times until 1976, the law was that joint
tenancy as it existed at common law was abolished in this
state." Williams v. Studstill, 251 Ga. 466, 466
(306 S.E.2d 633) (1983). See also Commerical Banking Co.
v. Spurlock, 238 Ga. 123, 124 (231 S.E.2d 748) (1977).
However, "[i]n 1976, the General Assembly provided that
a true joint tenancy could exist in Georgia, "
Williams, 251 Ga. at 466, n.2, and, in what would
later be codified as OCGA § 44-6-190, provided a
word-by-word method of creating a joint tenancy with right of
survivorship; although the statute also provides a method of
severing, that method is not exclusive. Here, Hall and Cahill
used the requisite language in the April 2005 quitclaim deed
to create a joint tenancy with the right of survivorship; the
question now is whether that concurrent estate was severed in
the subsequent divorce decree. To answer that question, we
must look to the final order itself.
issue here is the following portion of the divorce decree
concerning the Roswell property:
[Cahill] shall continue to have exclusive use and possession
of the [property]. Both parties shall remain on the title
until its sale.
The [property] shall be placed on the market for sale upon
[Cahill] reaching Sixty Six (66) years of age, unless
mutually agreed otherwise in writing by [the parties] .....
sale of the [property], any and all proceeds generated from
the sale of the residence . . . shall be equally divided
between the parties.
undertake a construction of this provision, we are reminded
"that the usual rules of contract construction are to be
utilized in determining the meaning and effect of a
settlement agreement incorporated into a decree of
divorce." DeRyke v. Teets, 288 Ga 160, 162 (702
S.E.2d 205) (2010). The controlling principle is to
"find the intent of the parties by looking to the
'four corners' of the agreement and in the light of
circumstances as they existed at the time the agreement was
made." (Quotations and citations omitted.) Doritis
v. Doritis, 294 Ga. 421, 424 (754 S.E.2d 53) (2014).
"Where any contractual term of a settlement agreement
incorporated into a decree is clear, unambiguous, and capable
of only one interpretation as written, the provision's
plain meaning must be strictly enforced." Hall v.
Day, 273 Ga. 838, 839840 (546 S.E.2d 469) (2001).
However, where there is ambiguity, we must apply well-settled
rules of contract construction. See Howard v.
Howard, ___ Ga.___, ___ n. 2 (807 S.E.2d 379) (2017).
is defined as duplicity; indistinctness; an uncertainty of
meaning or expression used in a written instrument, and . . .
also signifies of doubtful or uncertain nature; wanting
clearness or definiteness; difficult to comprehend or
distinguish; of doubtful purport; open to various
interpretations." (Quotations and citations omitted.)
Early v. Kent, 215 Ga. 49, 50 (108 S.E.2d 708)
(1959). See also Horwitz v. Weil, 275 Ga. 467, 468
(569 S.E.2d 515) (2002) ("Ambiguity in a contract is
defined as duplicity, indistinctness or an uncertainty of
meaning or expression."). Determining the existence of
ambiguity and, if need be, resolving that ambiguity, is the
duty of a court; there is no jury question raised unless the
ambiguity remains after the application of the pertinent
rules of construction. Travelers Ins. Co. v. Blakey,
255 Ga. 699 (342 S.E.2d 308) (1986). See also Envision
Printing, LLC v Evans, 336 Ga.App. 635 (786 S.E.2d 250)
the divorce decree plainly addresses the use, possession, and
eventual sale of the property - as well as the names on the
deed to the property - the decree is silent on the question
of the survival of the joint tenancy, and we conclude that
the provision is, in fact, ambiguous. Thus, we must attempt
to give clear meaning to this provision, construing it in the
context of the entire agreement, see Archer Wester
Contractors, Ltd. v. Estate of Pitts, 292 Ga. 219 (2)
(735 S.E.2d 772) (2012), and giving it a "construction
that will uphold the agreement rather than . . . render [it]
meaningless and ineffective." McLendon v.
Priest, 259 Ga. 59, 60 (376 S.E.2d 679) (1989). The
Government asserts that, in the absence of a manifest intent
to dissolve the joint-tenancy, we must conclude that the
parties did not ...