WALTER V. WALTER 2021-NCCOA-428
The language contained in a consent order should be unambiguous and clearly state what each party is required to do under the order. When the reading of the order leads to multiple reasonable interpretations, it may become impossible to enforce through contempt. Below is a custody consent order that had one such line of ambiguous language:
- Facts: Mother and Father had two children together. The children were the subject of a custody case, and the parents entered a consent order to resolve the issue. For summer vacations, the order stated that Father shall have “at least” two non-consecutive weeks. Father shall give Mother adequate written notice of his proposed summer vacation period within 5 days of making the plans. Father ended up taking the children to Europe for two consecutive weeks, then one non-consecutive week in Nebraska. Father had provided Mother with advance written notice of his plans, to which Mother objected. Mother filed a motion for contempt, and Father was found to be in contempt for willingly not abiding by the consent order as it pertained to summer vacations. Father then appealed.
- Issue: Was it an error when the trial court found Father in contempt?
- Rationale: Father argued that the consent order was ambiguous, and his interpretation allowed him to spend the summer vacation as he did. Because the consent order is merely a court-approved contract, it is subject to contract rules of interpretation. As such, ambiguous terms will be given their usual and ordinary meaning. Contempt requires willful noncompliance. Thus, if the interpretation of the consent order is valid, it cannot be willful noncompliance. The ambiguous term in this consent order was “at least.” Father argued that it meant he has “no less than” two weeks; meaning it allowed for more weeks but set a minimum of two. Mother argued that “at least” in the consent order meant “not more than.” Mother argued that the language limited the vacation weeks to two. The ordinary meaning of “at least” means that it set a minimum, but no maximum. Mother then argued that would be absurd and Father could potentially carve out the entire summer. But Father did not and testified that he only took the children on trips he typically did each summer. The Court found that Mother’s interpretation may have been equally as valid. In such a case, parol (oral) evidence is allowed; none was introduced here. Given that the term is ambiguous and both interpretations hold merit, Father cannot be held in contempt for his reasonable interpretation because it was not a willful noncompliance—he thought he was complying fully.
- Lessons and Observations:
- Be precise. If you mean two weeks, say two weeks. If you mean more – or less – than two weeks, just say so.