Assigned on Briefs July 3, 2017
from the Chancery Court for Henderson County No. 18292 James
F. Butler, Chancellor
a sixty-nine year old retiree, was found guilty of civil
contempt for failure to comply with a marital dissolution
agreement. We reverse the trial court's order
incarcerating Appellant "until payment of the debt"
and instead order his immediate release from incarceration
based upon his inability to pay the debt.
R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery
Court Reversed and Remanded
R. Tatum, Henderson, Tennessee, for the appellant, Randall
Steven Stafford, P.J., W.S., delivered the opinion of the
court, in which D. Michael Swiney, C.J., and Andy D. Bennett,
MEMORANDUM OPINION 
STEVEN STAFFORD, JUDGE.
appeal stems from post-divorce contempt proceedings in which
both parties were represented by counsel. The parties,
Petitioner Deborah Meadows Denton and Respondent/Appellant
Randall Eugene Denton ("Appellant") were divorced
by final decree in 2005. Incorporated into the decree was a
marital dissolution agreement ("MDA") signed by the
parties providing for the disposition of their marital
property, including two pieces of real property, a sixty acre
tract ("60-acre tract"), and a twenty-eight acre
tract ("28-acre tract"). Appellant was to receive
the 60-acre tract, while Ms. Denton was to receive the
28-acre tract, where her home was located. The properties
were encumbered by two mortgages. First, Appellant was
required to assume what the parties termed "the first
mortgage, " which apparently was secured by both tracts
of lands. The debt on the first mortgage was approximately
$90, 000.00. Ms. Denton in turn was to assume "the
second mortgage" of approximately $25, 000.00. The MDA
does not specifically note whether the property securing the
second mortgage includes only the 28-acre tract or both
tracts, as with the first mortgage. With regard to these
debts, the MDA provided that the party assuming the debt
would hold the other party harmless, "including
protection from foreclosure."
January 31, 2014, Ms. Denton filed a petition for contempt
against Appellant relative to his obligations under the MDA.
The petition alleged that the parties had "themselves
modified the payment of the debt" so that Appellant was
transferred ownership of two mobile homes, whose rental
income was to be utilized by Appellant to pay both the first
and second mortgages. Despite this agreement, Ms. Denton
alleged that Appellant failed to make the required mortgage
payments. Appellant answered the petition, generally denying
the material allegations contained therein.
trial court thereafter entered an order on September 14,
2014, finding Appellant in contempt, reserving the issue of
sanctions and attorney's fees, and ordering Appellant to
"take necessary steps to prevent [Ms.] Denton's home
and real property from being foreclosed." A hearing to
determine any further action necessary was scheduled for
October 9, 2014.
record contains no further filings with regard to Ms.
Denton's first contempt petition. Rather, on April 12,
2016, Ms. Denton filed a second petition for contempt against
Appellant. Therein, Ms. Denton alleged that during the
October 9, 2014 hearing, Appellant informed the trial court
that he had filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy to avoid foreclosure
of the home and property. Regardless, on January 27, 2016,
Ms. Denton alleged that she received notification that
foreclosure proceedings had been initiated against a portion
of the 28-acre lot. According to the notice, the debt on the
property had been accelerated and the amount of the debt
totaled $135, 594.51. Ms. Denton's petition asked that
Appellant be held in contempt, but did not specify that she
was seeking incarceration as a remedy.
filed an answer to the contempt petition on May 23, 2016.
Therein, he alleged that Chapter 13 bankruptcy proceedings
were ongoing and asked that the contempt proceedings be
stayed pursuant to the automatic bankruptcy
the years, the parties held several hearings before the trial
court on this issue. After a final judgment was entered in
this case, a Statement of the Evidence was filed, which
statement appears to include matters beginning in September
2014 and concluding in November 2016. According to the Statement
of the Evidence, at some point, the parties stipulated that
pursuant to the MDA, Appellant was awarded the 60-acre tract
and the first mortgage, while Ms. Denton received the 28-acre
tract, where her home was located, as well as the second
mortgage. It was undisputed, however, that after the entry of
the MDA, Appellant sold the 60-acre tract and entered into an
agreement with Ms. Denton to refinance the two mortgages into
a single loan solely in his name. The parties both testified
that the refinance in his name was necessary as Ms.
Denton's credit prevented her from refinancing her debt
alone. According to the parties, Appellant made the payment
on the new loan for many years, but later stopped. Appellant
contended that his failure to pay was the result of his
inability to pay. Appellant testified that his income had
substantially decreased since the divorce, as he was required
to retire due to health reasons. As such, Appellant testified
that he and his current wife have expenses of approximately
$3, 263.00 ...