November 1, 2005
Case Law Development: No Contempt for Failure to Comply with Divorce Court's Order to Hold Spouse Harmless from Debt
Here's an interesting story about what might happen after the court divides the debt...
Husband had secured a number of loans from his mother during the marriage. Upon divorce, Wife was ordered to pay those debts and hold husband harmless. After the divorce, Mother sued Wife to collect the debt, but the case was dismissed as Husband had not been joined and the court determined that Wife had no direct debt to Mother. As the appellate court noted: "the legal effect of the divorce decree is not to create a new debt between [Wife] and [Mother], nor does it require [Wife] to pay the debt as the only means of compliance. Rather, [Wife] is required to hold [Husband] harmless. Thus, she might hold him harmless by paying the debt, settling the debt, or defending a lawsuit on the debt." Years later, shortly before she died, Mother sued Husband, who confessed judgment on the debt (even though the claim would have clearly been time barred) without informing Wife of the suit. He was his Mother's sole heir and inherited nearly the entire amount of the judgment for the debt.
Husband then brought an action for contempt against Wife for her failure to pay the debt. The Ohio Court of Appeals held that Husband had no standing to bring the contempt action as he had suffered no injury because of Wife's contempt. "[Husband] paid a judgment against him and in favor of [Mother] without affording [Wife] the right and opportunity to defend and hold him harmless as she was obligated to do under the terms of the divorce decree. [Husband] obviously volunteered for his own injury by precluding [Wife] from fulfilling her duty...."
Hawk v. Hawk, 2005 Ohio 5756 (October 31, 2005)
Opinion on the web at http://www.sconet.state.oh.us/rod/newpdf/3/2005/2005-ohio-5756.pdf (last visited November 1, 2005 bgf)