Words, and their interpretation, can be the heart of any misunderstanding, and misunderstanding can be the heart of any legal dispute; sometimes with drastic consequences.
When looking at words in contract disputes, courts rely on a word’s ‘plain meaning’, usually by pulling out the dictionary and finding the word’s ‘plain meaning’. That’s an easy way to resolve a dispute over a word’s use in an agreement. But when a word can have different meanings, looking at the dictionary does no good. Courts must look at other evidence of what the parties meant when they chose a particular word in drafting their agreement.
A Word Can Have Different Meanings
Take, for example, an agreement that an unmarried parent (‘Parent A’) will pay $100 each month to the other parent (‘Parent B’), for the support of their child. Parent B thinks that payment is made on the first of the month. Parent A thinks payment is on the last day of the month; or any other day for that matter, as long as payment is made sometime that month! Who’s right?
They both are! There are two reasonable interpretations of what the parties meant when they used the term ‘month’ to figure out when Parent A was supposed to pay. Looking up the definition of the word ‘month’ (a unit of time corresponding to approximately 30 days) resolves nothing. We have no idea what the parties meant by using the word ‘month’ when they agreed when parent A was supposed to pay. If the court is asked to figure out what the parties meant, instead of the dictionary, it might look at other evidence, like:
- Were the parties already following a schedule in spite of the agreement?
- Were there any discussions the parties had with each other or others, about what they thought the agreement meant?
- What do other parents in similar situations do?
The court then gets to decide what the agreement should be, a potentially disastrous outcome for a party stuck with an agreement they never signed up for! Which is why words can be so important.
Choose Words Carefully
Minnesota law allows a parent to collect child support (including medical expenses) for up to two years before the legal action even began. 24 months of support can add up to a lot of money!
Recently, the Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision to deny a parent the chance to collect two years ($8,000) worth of medical expense contributions from the other parent. The decision came down to the parties’ use of the word ‘unpaid’ in their agreement.
When the parents in this case reached their agreement, they agreed that Parent A ‘reserved’ the right to bring a request for ‘unpaid’ medical expenses for the child. Basically saying that parents ‘punted’ the issue of medical expenses to be fought another day. Courts will allow this. The agreement read: “reimbursement of unpaid medical expenses [for the child] is reserved”. Seems pretty reasonable.
But, when it came time for Parent A to seek reimbursement for $8000 in medical expenses, the Court denied the request. Why did the court do this? Seems unfair to let a parent off the hook for $8000 worth of medical bills!
The court did this because the parties’ agreement only talked about unpaid expenses, and of course, the $8000 expenses that Parent A was trying to get reimbursement for, were not unpaid; they had been paid to medical provider by Parent A. Hence, the expenses did not meet the definition of ‘unpaid’ and therefore Parent A wasn’t allowed to seek reimbursement for them.
Had Parent A intended to reserve the right to seek reimbursement for $8000, reasoned the court, Parent A should have used the word ‘unreimbursed’ to describe the expenses, not ‘unpaid’. The agreement should have read: “reimbursement of unreimbursed medical expenses [for the child] is reserved” or “reimbursement of medical expenses [for the child] is reserved”.
Does this seem like an unfair result? Parent A had to eat $8,000 in medical expenses, without any help from the other parent, all because of a stupid word?? That, is why words matter.
For questions regarding Minnesota child support laws, and stipulations involving child support and past medical expenses, please contact the attorneys at Beyer & Simonson.
Contact Beyer & Simonson
If you are facing divorce and any of the divorce-related issues such as spousal maintenance, child support, child custody, property division, or domestic abuse matters, you need our experienced Minneapolis divorce attorneys to help you. Contact Beyer & Simonson in Edina, Minnesota today at (952) 303-6007.