In a recent decision by the New Hampshire Supreme Court, two ex-spouses argued about whether they had to pay for college expenses. The case, titled In the Matter of Christian Poulin and Rose Marie Poulin Wall, took a hard look at the specific language used in the parties’ Divorce Decree. The language stated, in pertinent part, “The parties agree to contribute to their children’s college education to the extent each party is financially able. The actual contributions shall be determined when each child is near college age.” The mother asked the father to pay 75%, the father refused and attempted to pay a lower number, and this case ensued.
The father argued that the agreement lacked specificity, and cited another New Hampshire Supreme Court case, In the Matter of Scott & Pierce. The father argued that the language of the Decree only required them to meet and discuss the case, and consistent with Scott, the case should be dismissed.
The Supreme Court disagreed. The language in the Scott decree only stated the parties would sit down at a future date to discuss paying for college. This was different from the language in this case, which stated that the parties both “agreed to contribute to their children’s college education”. This was a specific order to contribute, and that any order dictating what amount that contribution to college would be if the parties could not agree was merely to modify that initial order. The Court sent the case back down to the Family Court to determine what amount each party was financially able to contribute to their daughter’s college expenses.
This is an important example of the importance of specific language in any request for a court order or stipulation. Language is integral to law, as it should provide parties with a clear indication of their rights and obligations moving forward.