The Words We Say and The Words We Mean, by Jennifer Bicknell

As attorneys, or wanna-be attorney in my case, we live by words. We live by the words we say and we live by the words we write. Often, the words we use are carefully chosen to convey a specific meaning and achieve a specific result. When done correctly, these words have a powerful effect over the lives of our clients, and can get them the results they want. Conversely, these carefully chosen words can also backfire and take away from our client the result they want.

Recently, Jennifer Bellott, an attorney in our firm, brought to our attention a recent decision of the Tennessee Supreme Court in Bowron v. Hill, 2013 Tenn. App. LEXIS 681, 2013 WL 5604359 (Tenn. Ct. App. Oct. 11, 2013). The case stemmed from a dispute over payment of college tuition and living expenses pursuant to the parent’s Marital Dissolution Agreement (“MDA”). The agreement stated that each parent would jointly take part in the college decisions of their children. Bowron v. Hill, 2013 Tenn. App. Lexis 681 at 2. In this instance, Ms. Bellott brought to our attention not so much the words written in the agreement but the words omitted from the agreement. In this case, there was no provision for a veto of the choice of the child’s college leaving the father responsible for paying half of the out-of-state college tuition plus room and board. This amount well exceeded his ability to pay without borrowing against the equity in his home. This one word, “veto”, or an equivalent word choice, could have made all the difference in the outcome of this case, and even prevented it from being brought in the first place.

Another point brought out by Ms. Bellott is that when writing agreements such as MDA’s and Parenting Plans, it is not enough to look merely into the immediate future of separating property and deciding who the children will spend Christmas with this year. These agreements require attorneys to look far into the future and predict what circumstances might come up, especially as regards the children from a marriage. The words chosen on these agreements not only affect them immediately, but can affect those children beyond their minority and into their young adult lives.

They say a picture says a thousand words but it is also true that a word can have a thousand meanings (well, not that many but definitely more than one at any rate). So be careful in choosing words and think through all the ramifications of those words both in the present and into the future.