As a general rule, contempt of a judicial decree can be punished only by the court that rendered the decree. We recognized an exception to the general rule, however, in Buckholts v. Buckholts, 251 Ga. 58, 302 S.E.2d 676 (1983), where we held that, when one court has rendered a decree of divorce, and a second court later acquires jurisdiction to entertain a petition to modify that decree, the second court also has jurisdiction to entertain a motion for contempt of the original decree as a counterclaim to the petition to modify. Today, we consider whether the Buckholts exception is limited to counterclaims for contempt. We conclude that the Buckholts exception is not so limited and that it permits a court with jurisdiction to entertain a petition to modify a divorce decree also to entertain a motion for contempt of that decree, whether asserted as a counterclaim to the petition to modify or as an additional claim by the party seeking the modification.
In 2005, Robert Hanna and Kelli Ford were divorced in Gwinnett County. Hanna later moved to DeKalb County, and in 2011, Ford filed a petition in DeKalb County to modify their divorce decree with respect to child support and visitation.
The idea that contempt of a judicial decree ordinarily can be punished only by the court that rendered the decree is a longstanding and settled principle of Georgia law:
Jacob v. Koslow, 282 Ga. 51, 52, 644 S.E.2d 857 (2007) (citations, punctuation, and emphasis omitted). See also Austin v. Austin, 245 Ga. 487, 489, 265 S.E.2d 788 (1980) ("Contempt applications must be filed in the county where the divorce and alimony decree was entered." (citations omitted)); Ogletree v. Watson, 223 Ga. 618, 619(1), 157 S.E.2d 464 (1967) ("[O]nly the court offended has the power to punish for the contempt [of a custody decree] or to entertain proceedings to that end." (citation omitted)); Rockwood Intl. Systems Supply v. Rader Cos., 255 Ga.App. 881, 882(1), 567 S.E.2d 104 (2002) ("It is true that a court's right to punish for contempt is based on the theory that every court has the power to compel obedience to its own orders and judgments. So as a general rule, only the court that has been offended has the power to punish for the contempt." (citations omitted)). A petition to modify a divorce decree, on the other hand, must be brought in the county in which the respondent resides, even if the decree originally was rendered in another county. Duncan v. Medlin, 226 Ga. 118, 118, 172 S.E.2d 672 (1970). In some cases, these principles, applied together, would produce an "anomalous result," Buckholts, 251 Ga. at 60(1), 302 S.E.2d 676, by which a petition to modify an existing divorce decree may be litigated in one court, and a motion to enforce the same existing decree by contempt may be litigated in another.
To avoid such an "anomalous result," we recognized an exception in Buckholts to the general rule that a motion for contempt of a divorce decree properly can be entertained only by the court that rendered the decree.
Id. at 61(1), 302 S.E.2d 676 (footnote omitted).
Nearly sixteen years after we decided Buckholts, our Court of Appeals confronted the issue with which we are presented today. In Corbett v. Corbett, 236 Ga.App. 299, 511 S.E.2d 633 (1999), the husband and wife had been divorced in Macon County. The wife moved at some point to Terrell County, and the husband filed a petition in Terrell County for both modification of the divorce decree and for contempt of the decree. The Terrell County court found the wife in contempt of the original decree, and she appealed, citing the general rule that contempt of a decree can be punished only by the court that rendered the decree. Id. at 299-300, 511 S.E.2d 633. The Court of Appeals affirmed, reasoning that
Id. at 301, 511 S.E.2d 633. The Court of Appeals also picked up our reference in Buckholts to the settled principle that the power to enforce a judgment by contempt follows the judgment upon a transfer of the proceedings, explaining that, "[i]n a sense, the proceedings in [Corbett] were effectively transferred to Terrell County," and because the Terrell County court had independently acquired jurisdiction to modify the original
The reasoning in Corbett is, we think, fundamentally sound. We previously have characterized a petition to modify a divorce decree as a proceeding separate and distinct from the original divorce proceeding in which the decree was rendered, at least for purposes of the constitutional venue provisions, see Bugden v. Bugden, 224 Ga. 517, 518, 162 S.E.2d 719 (1968), so the filing of a petition to modify a divorce decree in a court other than the one that rendered the decree does not, strictly speaking, transfer the original divorce proceedings to the court in which the petition to modify is filed. But the subject matter of the original proceedings was the status of the marital relationship and the post-marital obligations that are an incident of that relationship, see Askew v. Bassett Furniture Co., 172 Ga. 700, 701(6), 158 S.E. 577 (1931), and in that sense, the filing of a petition to modify in another court does mark an effective transfer of what remains of the subject matter of the original proceedings, namely the post-marital obligations.
Here, there is no dispute that the DeKalb County court properly acquired jurisdiction to modify the divorce decree, independent of the contemporaneous motion for contempt. See Davis v. Davis, 259 Ga. 151, 151, 377 S.E.2d 850 (1989). Accordingly, the DeKalb County court also acquired jurisdiction to punish a contempt of the original decree, and it was error for the court to dismiss the motion for contempt. The judgment below is reversed.
All the Justices concur.