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Schaffeld v. Schaffeld

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fifth Division

March 7, 2019

SCHAFFELD
v.
SCHAFFELD.

          McFADDEN, P. J., RICKMAN and MARKLE, JJ.

          McFadden, Presiding Judge

         Carol Schaffeld appeals the order denying her motion to hold her former husband in contempt of their divorce decree for failing to pay alimony. She argues that the trial court erred in holding that her right to alimony had terminated because she was involved in a meretricious relationship. We agree because the evidence is undisputed that Carol Schaffeld had not entered a relationship that involved continuous, open cohabitation. So we reverse and remand the case for further action not inconsistent with this opinion.

         1. Procedural background.

         In 2012, Carol Schaffeld and Walter Britt Schaffeld divorced. The trial court incorporated their settlement agreement into the divorce decree. The agreement included two provisions requiring Walter Britt Schaffeld to pay alimony. Only one of the provisions is at issue in this appeal. That provision required Walter Britt Schaffeld to pay Carol Schaffeld $2, 500 per month and provided in pertinent part that "the payments shall cease if the Plaintiff/Husband or the Defendant/Wife should die, the Defendant/Wife should remarry or enters into a meretricious relationship."

         Four years after the divorce, Walter Britt Schaffeld concluded that Carol Schaffeld had entered a meretricious relationship. He stopped paying the $2, 500 portion of alimony to Carol Schaffeld directly, although he paid some or all into the court registry. Carol Schaffeld filed a motion seeking to hold Walter Britt Schaffeld in contempt for violating the settlement agreement and divorce decree. The trial court denied the motion as well as Carol Schaffeld's motion for new trial or to set aside the judgment. We granted Carol Schaffeld's application for discretionary review, and this appeal followed.

         2. Standard of review, evidence, trial court's ruling.

The trial court in a contempt case has wide discretion to determine whether its orders have been violated. . . . If there is any evidence to support a trial court's determination that its order has been willfully violated, this [c]ourt must affirm that determination on appeal. However, where a contempt action turns on the meaning of terms in an incorporated settlement agreement, construction of those terms is a question of law that is subject to de novo review on appeal.

Sutherlin v. Sutherlin, 301 Ga. 581, 582 (802 S.E.2d 204) (2017) (citations and punctuation omitted). Here, the relevant facts are largely undisputed, and the finding of contempt turns on the meaning of the term "meretricious relationship" in the parties' settlement agreement.

         The record shows that Carol Schaffeld is in an exclusive relationship with a physician who practices family medicine in Dunlap, Tennessee, 45 or 46 miles away from Carol Schaffeld's residence in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He has an apartment in Dunlap, in the same building as his office.

         They have overnight visits and spend as much time together as they can. But there is no "set schedule" and Carol Schaffeld does not "know from weekend to weekend if [she]'ll be able to see him or not." They have taken trips together and have spent holidays together.

         He has never lived continuously with Carol Schaffeld. He does not keep clothes or a toothbrush at her house. He does not receive mail at her house or pay her electric bills. He is not registered to vote at her house.

         Walter Britt Schaffeld and his fiancee conducted surveillance of Carol Schaffeld's house. On one occasion, her romantic partner was seen walking out of Carol Schaffeld's front door. In one three-month period, they observed one or more of his vehicles parked at Carol Schaffeld's house five Friday nights, five Saturday nights, and five Sunday nights.

         The trial court ruled that Walter Britt Schaffeld's alimony obligation "was terminated upon [Carol Schaffeld's] cohabitation." The court found that although Carol Schaffeld and her romantic partner did not spend every night together, they "lived together when [his medical] clinic was closed," Saturday through Monday. The court held that "it would not be logical in our modern mobile society to ...


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