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Ex-couple learns the hard way to read divorce decree fine print

Most adults in Colorado are familiar with the expression, “The road to perdition is paved with good intentions.” For one recently divorced couple in another state, that saying became an exasperating reality when they thought they could make an informal child support payment arrangement without first seeing how it might conflict with their divorce decree.

The plan that the divorced parents came up with seemed amicable and simple: rather than waiting for the child support provisions of the divorce decree to begin, they set up an arrangement under which the ex-husband made regular electronic payments to the ex-wife. The idea worked flawlessly--at first.

But to the ex-husband’s dismay, after the divorce was finalized, he suddenly received a notice from the state’s family services agency, stating that he was behind in his child support obligation. It did not rec-ognize the payments the man had made prior to the finalization of the divorce. When the ex-wife tried to communicate with the agency to clear up the matter, she discovered the hard way that when dealing with a bureaucracy it is not always easy to sort things out with a quick phone call -- particularly when dealing with an automated telephone response system on the other end.

What went wrong, the former couple eventually learned, was a case of another well-worn saying: “The left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing.” The state agency sought to enforce the child support provision of the decree, but was unaware of the informal payment arrangement that the parents had worked out.

Worse, the divorce decree itself then worked to complicate the matter, because it contained a specific provision stating that any payments made outside of the formal child support framework were a “gift” and not a substitute form of payment.

The divorced couple has determined how to rectify the situation, but not before learning valuable lessons; that are as valid in Colorado as anywhere else:

  • When dealing with a divorce decree or settlement, it is always a good idea to read its terms carefully before acting informally outside of it; and
  • It is usually a good idea to have an attorney read the decree language, to make sure that informal arrangements outside of it do not trigger a time-consuming, frustrating and possibly expensive exer-cise in the law of unintended consequences.

Source:  WKRC, “Divorce debacle: man charged for child support already paid,” Rich Jaffe, May 20, 2014

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