I received a call this week from “Tony,” a fictitious name for a man I represented in 1998, when he and his first wife had a 3 year old son together. He has been a generous and involved father to his child from that marriage for the entire 15 years since his divorce. He paid child support on time and in full even when he was diagnosed with Leukemia and had to take a medical leave of absence from his job for two years. He never missed a payment. In fact, he was never even late with a payment. He has since remarried and has an 11 year old son with his current wife.
We’ll call the first son John and the second son Jacob. John came on every vacation with Jacob and their dad and his wife. John has played as many sports as Jacob, he has gone to as many ball games and concerts and family picnics with their dad as Jacob has. The dad never lost his connection to John, never let the new family exclude John. John and Jacob know that they are half-brothers, but they feel that they are brothers.
In all his years of paying more than the court ordered by staying current with child support, and adding whatever extra-curricular activities he could, of making sure that John and Jacob both had health insurance, glasses, braces, cleats, and haircuts, Tony and his second wife always knew that once John turned 18, the child support payments would end. The love, and care, of course, will never end. But they were able to budget their lives knowing that in July of 2013, they would essentially get a pay increase.
Imagine Tony’s surprise, then, when he received a phone call in August from his ex-wife (let’s say “Tina”) telling him that he needed to start paying for John’s college tuition room and board. Tony and Tina both have copies of the same divorce agreement they signed in 1998. They both read the same words. Tina saw it and read, “Tony has to pay one –half of full tuition, room and board at a state University.” She figured that meant that if those costs are now about $12,000 per year, that it was time for Tony to start paying her $6,000 per year. If John goes away to college, or stays home with her should not influence (in her interpretation) how much money Tony owes her. She figured she could take $6000 from Tony, and have John take out student loans for anything else he needed. She just saw that paragraph as another pay day for her.
Luckily, Tony called me. I have to admit that I could not at first recall the specific language of the agreement. When we discussed it by phone and he said that he was obligated to pay half of John’s college, I thought that might be true. But I asked him to bring me a copy of the agreement anyway, so I could read it myself. It seemed like a bigger commitment than Tony would have made.
I told him that because of his illness, if necessary we could move the court for a modification, but that is a last resort. Remember, if Tony had to pay me to represent him in court, and Tina got an attorney, too, all of that money would be directed away from John’s education and into lawyer fees and court costs. The worst possible scenario, if you ask me.
Sure enough, he brought me the signed agreement and court orders and as soon as I had a chance to read them, I could see the confusion. The agreement is that both parties will help John get as much financial aid as he can get, and then the two parents will pay equal shares of what is left; but not more than the cost of a state college. If Tina pays $5000, Tony has an obligation to match it. But if John only needs $5000 from his parents; then Tony is only responsible for half of that amount. The best part, to me, and to Tony, is that none of this money will go to Tina. John will continue to have his dad helping him get through life and do what he needs to do; but all of Tony’s money will be going directly to John’s benefit, not by way of Tina – and not to lawyers’ fees.
What We Love: It is always worth having an attorney read a legal document for you. It might cost you an hour of the lawyer’s time, but it could save you thousands of dollars in mistakes.