It is What it is

December 2, 2019 § Leave a comment

When it comes to contract interpretation, the first rule is that, if the language is unambiguous, the judge is bound by the language in the four corners of the document. The language there is what the parties agreed to, and that is what will be enforced. Settlement agreements incorporated into divorce judgments are contracts subject to the rule.

Jerry Collado and his wife Jennifer (now Tyndall) got an irreconcilable differences divorce. Their settlement agreement included this language:

“Husband agrees to continue to pay for the minor children’s private school education, so long as the parties jointly agree for the children to be enrolled in private school, including tuition and registration fees, continuing through each child obtaining a high school diploma … “

When Jerry decided that he no longer agreed for all of the children to attend private school, Jennifer filed a petition to modify seeking an order requiring Jerry to continue to pay private school expenses for all of the children. At hearing, Jerry testified that he had agreed to the language in the agreement because he wanted to pay the private school expenses as long as he was able, but overtime had become uncertain and his expenses had increased, so that he suggested only the two older children finish at the private school.

The chancellor ruled that the children had always attended the private school, Jerry had always paid, and his financial statement did not support his claim that he was financially unable to pay. He ordered Jerry to pay, and Jerry appealed.

In Collado v. Tyndall, decided October 8, 2019, the COA reversed and rendered. Judge Jack Wilson wrote the opinion for a unanimous court:

¶6. On appeal, Chris argues that the chancellor erred by modifying the clear and unambiguous terms of the parties’ child custody and property settlement agreement. He argues that the chancellor should have applied principles of contract law to the agreement and should not have considered his ability to pay. In contrast, Jennifer argues that a provision requiring a party to pay private school tuition is in the nature of child support and therefore is subject to modification.

¶7. We will affirm a chancellor’s findings of fact as long as they are supported by substantial evidence and are not clearly erroneous. Campbell v. Campbell, 269 So. 3d 426, 430 (¶13) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018), cert. denied, 258 So. 3d 285 (Miss. 2018). Our standard of review on pure issues of law is de novo. Id.

¶8. When, as in this case, the parties have complied with the irreconcilable differences divorce statute, their agreement concerning matters of custody, support, alimony, and/or property division “becomes a part of the final decree for all legal intents and purposes.” Switzer v. Switzer, 460 So. 2d 843, 845 (Miss. 1984). With respect to the division of marital property, the agreement “is no different from any other contract, and the mere fact that it is between a divorcing husband and wife, and incorporated in a divorce decree, does not change its character.” East v. East, 493 So. 2d 927, 931-32 (Miss. 1986). Therefore, “when parties in a divorce proceeding have reached an agreement that a chancery court has approved, . . . we take a dim view of efforts to modify [provisions regarding the division of property] just as we do when persons seek relief from improvident contracts.” Ivison v. Ivison, 762 So. 2d 329, 334 (¶14) (Miss. 2000).

¶9. However, provisions of the agreement regarding child support are treated differently. A court-approved agreement to pay child support is subject to modification, and the rules governing its modification “are the same as if the chancellor had made a support award after a contested divorce trial.” Tedford v. Dempsey, 437 So. 2d 410, 417 (Miss. 1983). That is, the party seeking a modification of the agreement to pay child support bears the burden of proving “a material change in circumstances” that was “not foreseeable prior to the time of the agreement.” Finch v. Finch, 137 So. 3d 227, 237 (¶33) (Miss. 2014).

¶10. Jennifer is correct that “private-school tuition is considered part of child support.” Bruton v. Bruton, 271 So. 3d 528, 534 (¶16) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018) (citing Southerland v. Southerland, 816 So. 2d 1004, 1006 (¶11) (Miss. 2002)); accord, e.g., Gunter v. Gunter, No. 4 2017-CA-01767-COA, 2019 WL 1529265, at *2 (¶11) (Miss. Ct. App. Apr. 9, 2019); Elkins v. Elkins, 238 So. 3d 1204, 1211 (¶21) (Miss. Ct. App. 2018); Moses v. Moses, 879 So. 2d 1043, 1048 (¶14) (Miss. Ct. App. 2004). Therefore, provisions of a settlement and judgment concerning the payment of private school tuition are subject to modification.

¶11. However, Jennifer failed to prove any “material change in circumstances” that was “not foreseeable prior to the time of the agreement.” Finch, 137 So. 3d at 237 (¶33). The only thing that changed was Chris’s position as to where two of his four children should go to school. Chris’s decision that two of his children should attend public school was a change in circumstances, but it was a change that the parties’ court-approved settlement agreement expressly contemplated. The agreement requires Chris to pay private school tuition only “so long as the parties jointly agree for the children to be enrolled in private school.”

¶12. This Court recently addressed an analogous issue in Campbell, supra. There, we held that the emancipation of one of the parties’ four children did not support a court-ordered modification of child support because the parties’ original child support agreement specifically provided for a $1,250 reduction in child support upon the child’s emancipation. Campbell, 269 So. 3d at 430-31 (¶¶14-16). We explained that when the parties’ agreement already provides for the possibility of a specific change in circumstances, that “exact situation” cannot be deemed “unforeseen” or “unanticipated”—and,therefore, cannot support a modification of support. Id. The same reasoning applies in this case. The parties’ court approved agreement specifically contemplated that Chris might decide that some or all of his children should no longer attend private school. Thus, Chris’s decision was foreseeable and is not a basis for a modification of support.

¶13. Under the terms of the parties’ agreement, Chris is not required to continue to pay private school tuition if he does not agree that his children should continue to attend a private school. The chancellor disagreed with Chris’s claim that he could not afford to continue to send all four of his children to private school. However, the parties’ court-approved agreement did not require Chris to persuade the court of the reasons for his decision regarding his children’s schooling. And Jennifer failed to prove any material, unforeseen change in circumstances that would have supported a modification of the agreement. Therefore, the chancellor erred by ordering Chris to continue to pay tuition for children that
Chris preferred to send to public school.

Can’t think of anything to add to that.

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