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Morton v. Macatee

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

May 15, 2018

MORTON
v.
MACATEE. MORTON
v.
MACATEE.

          DILLARD, C. J., DOYLE, P. J., and MERCIER, J.

          Dillard, Chief Judge.

         In these consolidated appeals, Machelle P. Morton-f/k/a Machelle P. Macatee-appeals from the trial court's order in a contempt proceeding following her divorce from her ex-husband, Edward Van Macatee, and from the court's order correcting a clerical mistake in the final divorce decree. In Case Number A18A0514, Machelle appeals from the "corrected" divorce order, arguing that (1) the trial court's factual findings, as contained in the original divorce order, are unsupported by the record; (2) the court erred in assessing attorney fees against her without a statutory basis or findings of fact in support of same; and (3) the "corrected" order contains additional factual errors. In Case Number A18A0515, Machelle appeals from the trial court's order on competing petitions for contempt, arguing, inter alia, that the order constitutes an impermissible modification of the divorce decree outside the term of court. For the reasons set forth infra, in Case No. A18A0514, we affirm in part, vacate in part, and remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion; and in Case No. A18A0515, we reverse.

         The record shows that Van and Machelle were married in April 2011, and separated in March 2015. At the time of their separation, they had separate IRA accounts ("Machelle IRA" and "Van SEP"), and shared a Keogh retirement account and a joint savings account designated as the "Emergency Fund" account. A few months later (on May 19, 2015), Machelle petitioned for divorce. Then, following a bench trial on January 3, 2017, the court entered its final judgment and decree of divorce, in which it stated:

As for the division of the retirement accounts (Emergency Fund, Joint Emergency Fund, SEP-IRA and [Keogh]) this court finds, based on the evidence submitted and arguments of counsel, the amount to be divided is $390, 493.00. That is to be divided in half between the parties ($195, 246.50 each) with the following adjustments:
[Machelle's] ½ interest shall be reduced by $30, 000.00 to give [Van] credit for his contributions to the marital property and the Home Equity Line of Credit.
[Machelle's] ½ interest is further reduced in the amount of $10, 000.00 to give [Van] credit for the charges [Machelle] made to his American Express credit card which then brings her ½ interest down to $155, 256.50.
[Van] is also awarded attorney's fees in the amount of $7, 056.20 and expenses of litigation in the amount of $500.00 which brings [Machelle's] ½ interest further down to $147, 690.30.
[Van] shall pay $147, 690.30 in full to [his] attorney's escrow account, and [his] attorney shall then disburse the amount in full to [Machelle] all within 30 days of the date this order is signed. [Van] retains ownership of the accounts and [Machelle] shall indemnify and hold [him] harmless of the same upon payment of the amount stated herein to [Machelle's] attorney.

         Thereafter, Van insisted that Machelle accept the $147, 690.30 in the form of a transfer from his IRA to her IRA on the basis that he would suffer tax consequences if he withdrew the amount from his IRA. When Machelle refused a transfer by this method, the parties contacted the trial court for clarification of its order, and the court responded by email that:

Necessarily included in th[e] finding was that no one party would bear the tax liability on the tax deferred money nor would any one party get the benefit of only taking his or her share from the already-taxed proceeds account[.] I no longer have the exhibits in front of me to know what was in each account, but the intent was for everyone to share in the tax deferred money (and any related liability) and the taxed proceed money equally. I did not intend to create a one-sided windfall or onesided liability for either party.

         In response to this email, Van again requested that Machelle execute a "Transfer Due to Divorce" form, indicating to which IRA account Machelle wanted the money transferred so that it would be a nontaxable event. But Machelle refused to sign the form, asserting that the trial court's divorce decree directed Van to pay the amount owed to Machelle into his attorney's escrow account before being paid to her.

         On March 1, 2017, Van filed a contempt action, seeking to have Machelle held in contempt for failing to sign the transfer form. Machelle answered and counterclaimed, seeking to have Van held in contempt for intentionally failing to abide by the plain terms of the divorce decree-i.e., by refusing to pay $147, 690.30 into his attorney's escrow account for her benefit. Following a hearing on the competing contempt motions, the trial court declined to hold either party in willful contempt. But due to the parties' confusion regarding the division of the various accounts, the trial court stated that it would "clarify" the divorce decree within the contempt-motion order.

         The trial court first noted that there was a scrivener's error made in the decree when enumerating the different names of the parties' accounts, and that the names of the accounts should have been titled as "Emergency Fund, [Keogh], Machelle IRA and Van SEP." Second, the trial court acknowledged that the divorce decree was silent as to potential tax liability:

[I]t is clear from the record in this case and in the original divorce case that the Court's intent was to divide the parties' funds contained in the four accounts equally (subject to the offsets to [Machelle's] share previously mentioned). . . . [And] it was always the Court's intention to put each of the parties on equal footing. No one party was to bear the tax liability on any tax deferred money alone, nor would any one party get the benefit of only taking his or her share solely from any ...

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