KICKING THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD

October 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

What you thought would be a simple irreconcilable differences divorce has proven to be anything but. You’re bone-weary of your client’s whining. The other party is an intransigent j*ck*$$ over every minor detail. Counsel opposite has been an uncommunicative pain and no help at all with his client. Getting all the issues nailed down has taken a monumental effort. And now, with the final draft of the property settlement agreement nearing the finish line, all that remains is to settle the personal property.

But, that is where the parties are stuck. Husband wants this and that. Wife wants this and that. Counsel opposite is no help at all. You could spend some more time insisting that the parties resolve the personal property issues, but you don’t want to make the effort, especially without any help from the other attorney.

So you say to yourself, “What the heck; let someone else deal with it,” and you draft some language to fill in that pothole in the agreement. Parties sign and judge signs the judgment.

Deal done. Case closed. For now.

Only problem is, the parties will likely be back in court sooner or later battling over that pothole.

I call that “kicking the can down the road (KCDTR).” You do enough to get by, but in the process you draft a ticket back to court for your clients. You kick the can down the road where the next person coming along will have to pick it up and deal with it.

Of course, case weariness is only one source of the KCDTR phenomenon. Some lawyers KCDTR out of sheer laziness, others out of lack of drafting skills, others from haste, and others from oversight or lack of care.

Consider a recent case I had in which the property division read, “Husband shall have ownership of the former marital residence, and wife shall have ownership of the furnishing [sic].”

Wife moved and took with her all of the furniture and her personal effects. She also took the light fixtures and window blinds, along with a barbecue grill, a fountain (she left the base), a yard sweeper implement and various other items in the yard. Husband punched his ticket back to court.

After three days of trial (there were other issues involved), it was left to me to determine whether all the stuff that wife took was “furnishing.”

No need to go into detail about my ruling. You can probably guess how it came out. My point here is that if the drafting lawyer had said, “No, I am not going to put this PSA in final form unless and until you can give me a list of all the items that you two agree that wife will remove,” we would have avoided having to try that issue later.

Incidentally, the COA case of Aegler v. Gambrell, decided April 26, 2011, offers an insight into what exactly are considered “furnishings,” “personal things,” and fixtures.

Some other KCDTR examples:

  1. “The former marital residence shall be sold at a price to be agreed between the parties.” What if the parties can’t agree?
  2. “Husband shall be responsible for one-half of the school expenses.” Husband thinks this means he will pay for daughter’s cheerleading expenses. Wife thinks it means that husband will pay one-half of the private school tuition and assessments.
  3. “Husband and wife shall each pay one-half of the child’s extra-curricular activities.” What activities are included, and who decides?

I could go on and on, but I hope you get my point. A lawyer is paid to draft an agreement that will avoid future problems. If you are not accomplishing that in the instruments you draft, you are taking your clients’ money and not delivering what was paid for.

FYI … you can read some tips for PSA drafting here and here. A post on some hidden dangers in some commonly-used PSA language is here. A post on the hidden costs of divorce is here. An object lesson in the ramifications of drafting is here. A few tips from Ernest Hemingway that may help improve your legal writing are here.

Draftsmanship is one of the hallmarks of a good lawyer. The good ones draft PSA’s that are clear and unambiguous, address all that needs to be addressed without unnecessary prolixity and fluff, and are not only enforceable on their own terms, but also are stout enough to withstand attack.

Good lawyering = good draftsmanship. Not-so-good lawyering = KCDTR.

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