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Miller v. Miller

Court of Appeals of Tennessee, Nashville

May 29, 2018

JENNIFER LEE MILLER
v.
DAVID MARK MILLER, II

          Session March 28, 2018

          Appeal from the Chancery Court for Williamson County No. 29478 Joseph Woodruff, Chancellor

         This appeal involves a parent's obligation to pay college expenses for her son. After the parties' divorce proceeding, various orders and parenting plans were entered reflecting the parties' agreement to share equally their children's college expenses at the University of Tennessee. The trial court found that the parties subsequently reached an agreement that resulted in the oldest child deferring his enrollment for one semester, but that the agreement did not terminate or excuse the parties' existing obligation to share college expenses upon enrollment. The trial court found the mother in civil contempt for refusing to pay the college expenses and awarded a monetary judgment to the father for the unpaid expenses. We affirm.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgment of the Chancery Court Affirmed and Remanded

          John Samuel Cross, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellant, Jennifer Lee Miller.

          Adrian H. Altshuler and Caroline Beth Altshuler, Franklin, Tennessee, for the appellee, David Mark Miller, II.

          Brandon O. Gibson, J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Arnold B. Goldin and Kenny Armstrong, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          BRANDON O. GIBSON, JUDGE

         I. Facts & Procedural History

         Jennifer Miller ("Mother") and David Miller ("Father") were divorced by decree of the Williamson County Chancery Court on June 9, 2003. At that time, the parties had two children - a four year old son and a three year old daughter. The parties entered into a marital dissolution agreement and permanent parenting plan granting Mother primary custody. The parenting plan provided the following regarding the children's college education:

College education; minimum room, board and tuition for in state University of Tennessee student shared on 1/2 basis so long as full-time student status and for no more than five (5) consecutive years.

         An amended parenting plan was entered in 2004 with a similar provision:

College: The parties agree to share equally the minimum room, board and tuition for in-state, University of Tennessee student expenses so long a[s] the child is a full-time student and for no more than five (5) consecutive years.

         Finally, in 2010, the parenting plan was amended again due to Father's relocation to California. The children continued to live primarily with Mother in Tennessee. The parties again agreed to a substantially similar provision regarding college expenses:

The parties agree to share equally the minimum room, board and tuition for in-state, University of Tennessee student expenses so long as the child is a full-time student and for no more than five (5) consecutive years.

         The parties' son ("Son") graduated from high school in 2016.

         On January 24, 2017, Father filed a petition for civil contempt alleging that Mother willfully refused to pay her share of the expenses for Son's college education in direct violation of the orders of the chancery court. Father asked the court to compel Mother to contribute her equal share of the minimum in-state tuition, room, and board for Son, who was attending the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Mother filed an answer and motion to dismiss asserting lack of standing and claimed that she was excused from performance. The trial court held a hearing on the petition on June 9, 2017. Father and Mother were the only witnesses who testified at the hearing.

         Mother took the position that she was no longer obligated to pay for any college expenses for Son, in spite of the court orders and parenting plans, because the parties had subsequently reached another agreement via text message. Mother claimed that a condition of the text message agreement was not satisfied, and therefore, her entire obligation to pay college expenses terminated. Mother introduced as an exhibit the following text message exchange between her and Father:

(05/29/2016 14:29)
He's on plane. So are we in agreement that no drugs and good grades are how we're going to pay for college and help him a little bit we have to be in agreement on that and he has to come clean with a drug test in August because we're already going to be paying this summer for everything and then if he can't be clean and I guess that's a no-go I would think
David Miller (05/29/2016 14:32) I think that's fair
(05/29/2016 14:33)
Have that discussion with him then and make a grown-up what are you have to put it in writing and have him sign it or whatever he doesn't want to talk and he's very guarded with me like I'm just an annoyance and he doesn't want me to even talk
David Miller (05/29/2016 14:36)
Did u already tell him and I reinforce it or is this new ...

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