Beware Vague Language in College Education Support Provisions
January 7, 2015 § 2 Comments
In the recent COA case of Wilson v. Stewart, handed down December 9, 2014, Jay Wilson argued that the chancellor erred in construing the provision in the original agreed divorce decree to include post-emancipation college education support for his two daughters, Henley and Anabel. He also claimed that Anabel forfeited her right to support due to poor academic performance.
Here’s how Judge Fair treated the point for the court:
¶17. Jay claims that the court should have terminated his obligation to pay Anabel’s and Henley’s college expenses at twenty-one, the age of emancipation. Jay also argues that the court should have terminated his obligation based on Henley’s poor academic performance. In support of his argument, Jay cites Nichols v. Tedder, 547 So. 2d 766, 770 (Miss. 1989), which states that a parent has no legal duty to support a child once that child is emancipated. However, that duty may be extended to post-emancipation care by agreement, whether it be a separate contract or included in the divorce decree. Crow, 622 So. 2d at 1230.
¶18. Here, the provision pertaining to the payment of college expenses is in the original agreed divorce decree: “Jay shall bear, and otherwise provide for the funding of, the full costs of all college education expenses of the minor children . . . .” In Boleware v. Boleware, 450 So. 2d 92, 92-93 (Miss. 1984), our supreme court dealt with a similar provision in a modified divorce decree. The father in that case contracted to “be responsible for the payment of all college education expenses of the minor children . . . .” Id. Similar to the instant case, the children were under twenty-one when the parties entered into the agreement. Id. at 93. The father argued that his obligation ceased when the children reached twenty-one. Id. The court disagreed, relying on the chancellor’s finding that, at the time of the agreement, the parties intended for the obligation to extend post-majority. Id. In Crow, the court likewise held that a father’s separate agreement to pay for all reasonable college expenses remained in effect post-majority. Crow, 622 So. 2d at 1229. And in Mottley v. Mottley, 729 So. 2d 1289, 1290 (¶¶4-7) (Miss. 1999), the court referred back to its decision in Crow when discerning a father’s agreement to pay half of his son’s educational expenses; the court ultimately found that the father was bound by contract to pay post-emancipation support.
¶19. The chancellor in the present case ruled as our supreme court did in Boleware, Crow, and Mottley, reasoning that vague college-support provisions have been routinely construed to include post-majority support. Further, Jay’s agreement to pay for the children’s college expenses was not dependent upon their academic performance. We find no error in the chancellor’s ruling. [Emphasis added]
A few crucial points:
- “Vague college-support provisions have been routinely construed to include post-majority support.” That’s critical. I think some lawyers often blur language in agreements in hopes that everyone will read into it what they want to be there, so as to induce an agreement. But that tactic can produce a result radically different from what your client really wanted. If you make it vague, it will be construed to include post-majority support, no matter what your client intended.
- Vague language is indefinite language. Don’t assume that the judge will find the language to be ambiguous, so as to open it to parol evidence for interpretation, especially in light of the cited cases.
- A good rule of practice is to make your agreements say exactly what you intend, and to be as specific as possible. If that hangs the agreement up, work through it by give and take, but don’t compromise by making the language less definite. A good example of the importance of drafting to the ultimate outcome is the case of Zweber v. Zweber, the college flying lessons case about which I previously posted.
In case after case, the lesson is inescapable that if you opt for indefiniteness, the outcome could seriously damage your client. A few other examples: when the alimony provision is unclear, it will be interpreted to be periodic alimony; the IRS considers that the custodial parent has the tax exemption when the PSA or judgment does not provide otherwise; and use of the term “family support” has been construed by the US Tax Court to create an alimony, and not a child support, obligation.