Oral Agreements Unreliable in Family Law
A recent case in family court in New York illustrates the need for child support agreements to be made in writing and incorporated into a court order.
The divorced parties in the case, Kristina Lynn B. v. Joseph T.M., were parents of 10- and 12-year-old boys. In 2012, the mother withdrew her older son from a public school and sent him to a private school called the Christian Brothers Academy. The boy had emotional difficulties and had been subject to bullying at his school. The mother sought increased support for the higher tuition at the private school.
The mother admitted that she and the father had made an oral agreement that she would pay the full cost of tuition. However, Judge Duggan upheld a Support Magistrate’s earlier ruling by holding that the oral agreement did not absolve the father of responsibility for sharing in the tuition cost and in fact helped the mother’s claim.
The father had consented to the boy transferring to the private school. The Court held that this amounted to an admission that the academy was the best option for his son’s education. Judge Duggan wrote, “The interpretation of an oral contract between the parties or imposing equitable relief is beyond this Court’s authority.”
The judge also wrote that an oral agreement after the first year could be unenforceable because the state’s statute of frauds would require any such agreement to be in writing.
The Support Magistrate found that the case for the boy’s attendance at the private school was compelling. He was diagnosed with a hearing disability in 2009 and since then had been suffering from emotional problems including depression, requiring medication of increasingly higher dosages. The Magistrate found that since transferring to the private academy, the boy’s emotional health has improved significantly, allowing his medication to be decreased. Judge Duggan also noted the father’s financial situation – his income had risen 41 percent since the divorce. Furthermore, the cost of tuition at the private school was found to be in line with comparable institutions in the area.
This case demonstrates that oral agreements should not be relied upon in any legal matter including those involving family law. Any child support agreement should be written – preferably by an experienced family law attorney – and should be ratified by the court. The temptation to keep things simple and save a few dollars is strong, but as in this case, such efforts are all too likely to backfire.