All Medical is not Major

September 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

I’ve seen a few agreed judgments and PSA’s lately that have provisions along these lines:

“[Father] shall maintain major medical, optical, and dental insurance covering the minor child … “

When I inquire, I am told that what the parties intended was actually a standard health-insurance policy along with the optical and dental insurance.

There’s a huge difference between a “major medical policy” and a “health insurance” or “medical insurance” policy.

The term “major medical” is a term of art in the insurance industry to specify insurance designed to cover medical expenses due to severe or prolonged illness by paying all or most of the bills above a set amount. Many major medical policies are cheaper than a regular health or medical policy. They are designed to kick in over and above what regular health and medical insurance covers.

So a major medical policy would kick in, for example, after your health insurance has paid out, say, $50,000 for cancer treatment, and only then would major medical start paying up to some contracted limit.

A health or medical insurance policy, by contrast, pays a percentage (usually 80%) of covered medical, hospital and surgical expenses. It is not limited to severe or prolonged illness, and there is no threshold coverage amount other than a deductible or co-pays.

Remember that the judge is bound by the language you use in that agreed judgment or PSA. If it says “major medical,” it doesn’t matter what the parties thought they were getting; they are bound by the terms they used.

Consider what could happen if Junior breaks his arm and spends the night in the hospital with only a major medical policy in force. The bill is $8,000. But the major medical policy covers only catastrophic illness, such as cancer, and only after the expenses are in excess of $20,000. Problem? You betcha.

And don’t expect any relief from the judge. That’s what the parties agreed to get.

Be careful with your terminology. Your client will have to live with it.

Communicating: Improving a Basic Skill

December 7, 2016 § 1 Comment

At its heart the legal profession is all about communicating, which consists of at least several elements:

  • First, one must understand that which must be communicated. This entails analysis of the situation to break it down into its legal elements, and then application of the law to those elements.
  • Second, the analysis has to be translated into understandable words.
  • Third, the understandable words have to be presented in an organized, understandable, persuasive manner.

You can probably improve on that, but it suits my purposes for now.

At the trial level, effective communication involves well-written pleadings and briefs or memoranda of law, and oral argument, as well as the way you examine witnesses. At the appellate level, brief-writing and oral argument depend heavily on how well the lawyer can communicate.

Some things that get in the way of effective communication are poor grammar and spelling, improper word choice and usage, and disorganized thinking. And, it should go without saying that your communication is for naught if your legal analysis is flawed.

Here are a few tools to help you craft your communications effectively:

  • The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White. This little gem at fewer than 100 pages (at least in the worn edition I have), is crammed with useful insights into effective writing. Here you will find such usage solutions as how to create the possessive plural of names ending in s, proper use of semi-colons with clauses, whether to use a singular or plural verb forms with words such as “or” or with linking verbs, and the proper case of pronouns, all presented in clear language with easy-to-grasp examples. There are other sections on principles of composition, matters of form, misused words and expressions, and suggestions for improving your style of writing.
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H.W. Fowler, Jeremy Butterfield, editor. When should one use italics? What is the difference between reciprocal and mutual, or apprehend and comprehend, or unless and until? Why the word “literally” conveys the opposite sense of what you intend? Do we still observe rules such as avoiding split infinitives and ending sentences with a preposition (hint: it’s usually okay to)? You will find answers to these and many, many other questions that routinely pop up as you write in this useful book that is arranged by subject alphabetically.
  • Any good thesaurus. When you say the same thing over and over using the same words, your words have no impact.
  • A good dictionary. Before you use that word, you might want to look it up (takes three seconds) to make sure it means what you think it does.
  • The Law Prose blog. A gold mine of information on proper and potent use of legal terminology. This is one you should bookmark.
  • Adams on Contract Drafting offers guidance on how to draft contracts in ways that avoid ambiguity and clearly state the intent of the parties. Even if all of your drafting practice consists of property settlement agreements, you can learn something here about how precision in the use of language can make a big difference between success and failure of your instruments.
  • Here’s a link to an article in the ABA Journal Online on How to Bring a More Conversational Tone to Your Writing, which is meritorious in its own right, but illustrates also that there are resources all over the internet that you can bring to bear in your quest to be a more productive communicator.

You may be surprised how, when you concentrate on making your language more concise, correct, and powerful, you will simultaneously discover weaknesses in your legal analysis and thought process that you can shore up and strengthen before you ever dispatch that communication to counsel opposite and the court. That’s the kind of strength that distinguishes a really good lawyer from a mediocre one.

Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say

January 4, 2016 § 1 Comment

Lee and Leslie Voulters were divorced from each other in 2004 on the sole ground of irreconcilable differences. The divorce judgment incorporated their PSA, which provided that Lee would pay Leslie lump-sum alimony in the sum of $1.08 million at the rate of $10,000 a month until paid in full. He also agreed to maintain a policy of life insurance on his life with a benefit of $1.08 million, with Leslie as beneficiary.

When Leslie filed a contempt action in 2013 charging Lee with missing some lump-sum payments and with failing to provide proof of life insurance, Lee counterclaimed, asking the court to interpret the PSA that the purpose of the life insurance was to protect Lee’s payment of lump-sum alimony, and that the obligation would terminate when the lump-sum alimony was paid in full.

Spoiler alert: There is no provision in the PSA that links the life insurance requirement to the lump-sum-alimony requirement.

Here are the pertinent parts of the agreement:

LUMP SUM ALIMONY/SPOUSAL SUPPORT

Lee shall pay spousal support to Leslie, in the form of lump sum alimony, the total sum of $1,080,000.00, payable in monthly installments of $10,000.00 each for a period of nine years. Such payments for support shall be due and payable by automatic bank transfer from Lee’s checking or other account directly into Leslie’s checking account, commencing on the fifth day of April, 2004, and shall so continue for one hundred and seven consecutive months thereafter. Lee’s obligation to pay such support to Leslie shall be fully vested upon the entry of a Final Judgment of Divorce in this cause, and shall not be modifiable. Lee’s obligation to pay such support shall not terminate upon Leslie’s death or remarriage, nor shall it terminate upon Lee’s death. However, despite the conventional definition of lump sum alimony[,] . . . these payments by Lee to Leslie under this Agreement shall be taxable to Leslie, and deductible by Lee, for state and federal income tax purposes.

LIFE INSURANCE

Lee agrees to maintain life insurance on his own life in an amount not less than one million, eighty thousand dollars ($1,080,000.00), naming Leslie as primary beneficiary thereon. Proof of such insurance coverage shall be furnished to Leslie within fifteen (15) days following the date of execution of this Agreement. Furthermore, Lee shall direct his insurance carrier to provide coverage information to Leslie at least twice a year if requested by Leslie.

. . . .

EFFECT OF AGREEMENT

. . . .

The respective rights and obligations of the parties hereunder are deemed independent and may be enforced independently irrespective of any of the other rights and obligations set forth herein. This Agreement contains the entire understanding of the parties, who hereby acknowledge that there have been and are no representations, warranties, covenants, or understandings other than those expressly set forth herein.

RELEASE AND WAIVER

Subject to the provisions of this Agreement, each party has released and forever discharged . . . his or her heirs, legal representatives, Executors, Administrators, and assigns . . . from all causes of action, claims, right or demands . . . in law or in equity . . . except . . . causes of action for divorce or separation action now pending . . . . Each party releases, waives, and relinquishes any and all rights . . . to share in the estate of the other party upon the latter’s death . . . . (Emphasis added.)

Both parties offered testimony about their intent in negotiating the language into the agreement. Lee argued that the agreement was ambiguous because it had no termination date. Leslie argued that she negotiated it for support, which she needed because her estate was meager in comparison to Lee’s.

One question before I tell you how the chancellor ruled: do you see anywhere in that language quoted above any link between the life insurance obligation and the lump-sum alimony?

The chancellor ruled that the agreement was unambiguous, and that it did require Lee to maintain the life insurance regardless of the status of the lump-sum payments. Lee appealed.

On December 8, 2015, the COA affirmed in Voulters v. Voulters. The opinion by Judge Barnes includes a nice recitation of the law of contract interpretation, life insurance and insurable interests, and even attorneys fees in contempt actions and on appeal.  I definitely commend it to your reading.

What I want to focus on here is this: If you want your agreement to mean a particular thing, then make sure there is language in it that says that particular thing. Remember that when the judge is called on to interpret a contract, she is bound by the language within the four corners of the document, and she may not accept parol evidence to vary or “explain what the parties meant” by those terms unless she first finds the agreement to be ambiguous. Just because Lee did not include a termination date for his life insurance obligation, that did not render the agreement ambiguous. It rendered instead the meaning that it had no termination date. In other words, it meant exactly what it did and did not say.

Be careful in your draftsmanship. Take time to make sure it says exactly what your client needs it to say. I think I was saved a hundred times or more by the simple practice of drafting the agreement and setting it aside for at least a day. I would then pick it up and read it afresh, often catching something that could be read two ways, or was simply not clear enough to do the job. Sometimes I would imagine myself to be another person altogether, looking at it as an outside observer. Anything to get an objective perspective.

Remember that some day someone entirely unconnected with the negotiations and the emotion of the divorce case is going to be reading your work with absolutely none of the knowledge that you had when you drafted it. It may be a judge, or it may be another lawyer having to represent your client, or — heaven forbid — a lawyer looking for a cause of action against you. That’s why it’s critical when you draft an agreement to give some thought and care to the words, phrases, and language construction that you use. That’s what your client is paying you for: to have absolutely no more trouble out of this matter after the final judgment is entered.

The Bite of Draftsmanship

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

How you draft your legal instruments can have a huge impact on your clients’ future.

Take, for instance, the parties’ property settlement agreement (PSA) in the case of Aaron v. Aaron, a COA case handed down September 9, 2014. George and Annie Aaron were divorced in 2002 on the ground of irreconcilable differences. At the time, George was employed with the Amory Police Department, and was a participant in PERS. We don’t know from the court’s opinion the exact language of the parties’ agreement, but we know this much from ¶ 1:

As part of the divorce, George agreed to pay Annie one-half of his retirement funds acquired during the marriage. The judgment stated the funds would be transferred through a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO). At the time the judgment was entered, George was not receiving any retirement benefits. The judgment did not state which party was responsible for entering the QDRO.

We also can divine from the opinion that: the language of the PSA did not specify whether Annie was to receive 1/2 of the retirement accumulated during the marriage, or 1/2 of all George’s retirement, a significant portion of which would be earned after the divorce; it did not spell out what consideration would be given to future pay increases on George’s ultimate obligation to Annie; it also did not settle the question whether the payments were intended to be paid out in a lump sum as property settlement or whether they were intended to be paid monthly as benefits were paid out to George, in the nature of alimony.

The legal considerations that remained unaddressed in the parties’ agreement were, at least, the following:

  • PERS takes the position that federal ERISA and Mississippi law do not allow division of PERS benefits by QDRO. The agreement should have provided that it would be divided by payment, unless George left PERS employment and withdrew his account, at which time it would be divided by specified percentages between them.  No mention should have been made of a QDRO vis a vis the PERS benefits. Also, whose responsibility it was to trigger the payment of benefits should have been specified in the agreement.
  • Final calculation of the PERS benefit is based on the highest four years of earnings. Since George was not a retirement age at the time of the divorce (he did not retire until 2011), the parties should have negotiated and included in their agreement how Annie’s 1/2 benefit would be calculated, taking into account the probability of George’s future pay increases.
  • PERS benefits can not be paid out in a lump sum unless the employee leaves PERS employment. As mentioned above, this obvious point should have been addressed in the parties’ agreement. In essence, these parties had no choice but to have Annie’s share paid out over time. That is what the chancellor in Pruitt v. Pruitt tried to do, but was reversed by the COA. The problem, based on Pruitt, seems easy to address in a rational way, but is in reality deceptively difficult to resolve.

Every one of the foregoing deficiencies came back to bite these parties in the proverbial nether regions. Annie brought a contempt action against George because he did not initiate a QDRO, and for her unpaid benefits. George countered that he owed nothing, since PERS could not be divided by QDRO. The chancellor calculated what she concluded was Annie’s portion, and ordered that Annie receive that from George’s retirement payments as paid, and she awarded Annie a judgment with modest interest for the benefits that he had received and not shared with Annie. She died not find George in contempt.

George appealed, raising all of the points above. The COA affirmed.

It would have saved everyone involved a lot of legal fees, costs, aggravation, anxiety, and time if only some more attention and effort had been put into the drafting of the PSA in the first place. Yes, it would have required more time for negotiation and drafting, but it would have settled the issue as early as 2011 without the need for further litigation. It’s called draftsmanship.

 

THE MISCHIEF OF “FAMILY SUPPORT”

April 4, 2013 § 3 Comments

I’ve spoken here before about the mischief that can arise when one uses the ambiguous term “family support” instead of terms of art such as “child support,” “alimony,” and “property division” that are familiar to our courts. As I said in a previous post, the repercussions can be quite unexpected and unpleasant for your client.

In a decision handed down March 11, 2013, the US Tax Court in the case of DeLong v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, ruled that the term “family support” creates an alimony obligation, and not a child support obligation.

You can read the decision for yourself, but it essentially turns on the point that since the obligation is not specifically denominated as child support the IRS will not consider it such.

This case arises out of a California divorce judgment. Note that the opinion states that the tax court will look to state law for how the state would treat the obligation. If this were a Mississippi case, the tax court would, to the best of my knowledge, find no helpful authority because the term “family support” is unknown under our law.

There are some serious side-effects from a case such as this. Child support is not deductible by the payer, and it is not income to the payee. Alimony is, however, deductible by the payer, and it most definitely is income to the payee. So, in this case, Mr. Delong got to deduct the payments under the divorce judgment, and the former Mrs. D. gets a bill for income taxes on the payments. If you had negotiated the settlement for Mrs. Delong and that is what she expected as an outcome, then you’re in good shape. If, on the other hand, she was not expecting a tax bill, you’d better look out.

And if the judge, in a comatose moment, injects that kind of language into a judgment, protect your client by filing a timely MRCP 59 motion to get the judge to correct the ambiguity.

In Mississippi, payments are either alimony, or child support, or property division. Denominate them as such, allocating the specific amounts under each. Never use combined language like “Husband shall pay to wife the sum of $2,500 each month as alimony and child support.” And never use ambiguous, non-legal language like “family support” when there are perfectly suitable, meaningful terms like “child support,” “alimony” and “property division” that do the job quite well.

Thanks to Justin Cobb, Esq.

THE ZWEBER ZIG-ZAG ON COLLEGE SUPPORT

January 3, 2013 § 3 Comments

You may recall my post back in February, 2012, about the COA decision in Zweber v. Zweber, in which that court adopted what I described as a rather expansive definition of college education support. This is the case, you may remember, where the daughter took flying lessons toward an aviation degree, and the mother balked at paying her part of the rather pricy tab. The chancellor ruled that she must, and the COA agreed, holding in essence that any expense in furtherance of the college degree is included. 

Well, the MSSC reversed that COA decision on December 13, 2012. The MSSC decision in Zweber v. Zweber is one that all of you who prepare property settlement agreements (PSA) should study and take to heart.

The parties in Zweber had entered into a PSA that included the following language for college education support:

“The Husband and Wife shall each be required to pay for the cost of the minor children, with Husband paying two-thirds (2/3) of the expense and Wife paying one-third (1/3) of the expense, based on the cost of the child attending college at a four[-]year state[-]supported institution in such state as the child is a resident of. All costs are to be based on the average costs of meals, tuition, books and room, published in a state[-]supported catalog and not to exceed the cost of a four[-]year state[-]supported institution. This obligation shall continue even if the child is over twenty-one (21) years of age prior to the completion of college.” [Emphasis added]

At ¶ 15, Justice Dickinson’s opinion states: ” … the Court of Appeals correctly concluded that … in certain situations, parents may be required to pay for their children’s college educations and the extent of that obligation may go beyond payment for “meals, tuition, books, and room. But because the divorce decree in this case includes a specific provision addressing specific college expenses, it is distinguished” [from the cases cited by the COA].

This case highlights the critical importance of making sure that the PSA you offer for a particular client specifically meets the needs of that particular client. Don’t assume just because a provision got the desired results in one case that it will do the job an another case. One size does not fit all. In Zweber, if the provision had been drawn with less specificity, and possibly even made reference to the flying lessons, the result would likely have been different. Instead, the Supreme Court held that the unambiguous language of the parties’ contract governed. The specific, narrowly drafted language of the agreement saved Mrs. Zweber and cost Mr. Zweber.

As the MSSC said, in some cases, the covered costs may well go beyond, meals, tuition, books and room, but that depends on how the PSA is drafted.

ANOTHER OBJECT LESSON IN PSA DRAFTSMANSHIP

December 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

What does the following language in a divorce property settlement agreement (PSA) mean?

The parties both agree and understand that [Stephen] will retire from Martin Marietta Manned Space Systems effective April 24, 1992. . . . The parties have agreed to accept #D-Level Income as the monthly benefit option. This will provide [Stephen] a monthly income of approximately $3[,]189.26. [He] will remit to [Gloria] one-half of this income, being the approximate amount of $1,594.63, on the first day of each month . . . commencing on January 1, 1993. These monies will be considered alimony[,] and [Gloria will be responsible for the income taxes].

That was the question squarely presented to the chancellor in litigation between former spouses Stephen and Gloria Reffalt.

Stephen and Gloria were divorced in 1993. Stephen had retired from his job with Martin Marietta (MM). Approximately two years later Stephen’s retirement benefits paid by MM were reduced when his Social Security benefits kicked in, as the plan provided. As a result of the automatic reduction, the $1,594 payments to Gloria came to represent considerably more than 1/2 of the MM benefit. Nonetheless, Stephen continued paying the $1,594 until December 2008, when he apparently decided enough was enough, and he filed a petition to modify the payments proportionally to about $1,150 a month.

Stephen took the position that the above PSA language clearly intended that Gloria receive only 1/2 of his MM retirement benefits, whatever that amount might be.

Gloria argued that the language mandated that she be paid 1/2 of Stephen’s total retirement benefits from whatever source.

The chancellor found the language to be ambiguous and accepted parol evidence of the parties’ intentions in the drafting of the contract. Placing heavy emphasis on the parties’ course of conduct over fifteen years after the reduction in MM benefits, the trial court held that the language intended that Stephen pay the higher amount, and denied his request for a downward modification.

In Reffalt v. Reffalt, decided December 13, 2011, the COA affirmed. I recommend that you read the opinion, written by Judge Ishee, for its exposition on the principles of contract interpretation and what is and is not an ambiguous contract. The opinion also touches on the question of modification of property settlement.

This case is yet another example of draftsmanship that may appear at first blush to be clear, but on further inspection is susceptible to several different interpretations. Consider the language ” … This will provide …” and ” … one half of this income …” To what do the pronouns this refer? Are their objects the same thing or different? Better to have said “… one half of the #D-Level benefit each month …” Or “Stephen will pay to Gloria the sum of $1,594 each month.” Or “The amount payable by Stephen shall be adjusted automatically to be equal to 50% of his #D-Level benefit actually received, without any voluntary action on his part to reduce the amount received.”

A few suggestions:

  • As I have said here before, it’s a good idea to draft and set aside that agreement for a day or two. Then pick it up and read it through different eyes. Cast yourself in the role of the judge looking at it years later, or the plan administrator considering how to apply it, or another lawyer to whom your former client has carried it.
  • Go pronoun hunting. Eliminate as many as you possibly can, replacing them with the specific term that you intend to refer to.
  • Does your language say exactly what you mean to say, or is it indirect and prolix? More words are not always better. The more verbosity you use, the more likelihood that confusion, unintended meanings and ambiguity will grow and fester in that thicket like a staph infection. 
  • Here are five suggestions for improving your PSA’s.
  • And here are five more.
  • Here is a post about a nightmare scenario in draftsmanship.
  • Kicking the can down the road, and why it’s not a good idea in your PSA’s. 
  • And here is a post on some examples of the hidden costs of divorce that you need to take into account when drafting a PSA.

Give your PSA’s some thought. That’s what you’re being paid for. Strive for your PSA’s to be better than 99% of other attorneys’. Make it your goal that no judge will ever have to find one of your PSA provisions to be ambiguous.

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.

A COSTLY LESSON IN PSA DRAFTSMANSHIP

July 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

What does this fairly commonplace paragraph from a PSA mean:

School and Extracurricular Expenses. Husband and Wife shall each be responsible for one-half (1/2) of all school and extra-curricular expenses incurred by the minor child including but not limited to the cost of books, activity fees, lab fees, school uniforms, tuition, and sports equipment.

Does that provision refer to private elementary and/or high school? Or does it refer to college? Is the language ambiguous?

In McLeod v. McLeod, decided July 19, 2011, by the COA, those questions were presented squarely to the appellate court.

Judge Griffis wrote the opinion that held the language above to encompass all levels of education, and rejected both the arguments that the language was ambiguous and that private elementary and high school expenses are usually included in child support as the court had held in Southerland v. Southerland, 816 So.2d 1004 (Miss. 2002), and Moses v. Moses, 879 So.2d 1043 (Miss. App. 2004). The opinion distinguished the two cases from the facts in this case. The COA decision is worth a read, and I will not rehash it further here.

The point I want to make is how important it is to be aware of precision in your draftsmanship. It would have been a simple matter for the husband’s attorney to clarify the language to specify that it pertained to college, if that was, in fact, the agreement.

Some PSA’s lack clarity. The meaning is hidden behind a cloud of words. That was not the problem in this COA case, but it’s a common problem nonetheless. You can read some ideas for clearer draftsmanship here.

Mostly, though, it seems that we sometimes get in too much of a hurry. The client may be pressing or you put off tending to it until you had no more time to spare. Haste is the enemy of precision.

Make time to set aside what you have drafted for at least a few hours or a couple of days. Then pick it back up and look at it through fresh eyes. Put yourself in the role of a judge who is reviewing it. You know what you meant to say, but will that judge looking through different eyes see it the same way? Are there more precise words that could be used? Is what you have written susceptible to more than one interpretation? Is there something there that can come back and bite your client?

You want your PSA’s — and everything you draft, including pleadings, contracts, briefs — to say exactly what you mean to say and to promote the best interest of your client. Take your time on draftsmanship. Haste is the enemy of precision.

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