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Support trigger in PSA not ‘ambiguous’

A divorce court’s interpretation of a PSA to figure the trigger for the father’s support obligation did not rewrite their agreement, the Court of Appeals of Virginia ruled today.

The 2010 property settlement agreement between Brian and Gracie McPhail said he would pay support of $550 per month “upon the sale of the house or beginning May 1, 2010 and continuing thereafter in like amounts” until their only child graduated from a four-year college, or not later than her 22nd birthday.

A year went by, and the mother claimed an arrearage, but the father said his child support payments were timely because they started on May, 1, 2011, when the former marital home sold.

Interpreting the agreement to say support started on May 1, 2010, and not one year later on May 1, 2011, required the words “whichever comes first” to be added to decipher the PSA, the father argued. He also said if the appellate court did not accept his own interpretation, it should at least find the agreement ambiguous, or decide there was no meeting of the minds and no agreement.

Chesterfield County Circuit Judge Frederick G. Rockwell III said support should have started May 1, 2010, and the father owed $6,600 in back support. He said the “whichever comes first” interpretation was “the only reasonable interpretation” because it gave the parties incentive to sell the home quickly.

The lower court’s construction of the PSA did not amount to reforming the contract, an appellate panel said in its Sept. 25 unpublished per curiam opinion in McPhail v. McPhail. Considering the PSA as a whole, the panel said the marital home was to be listed for sale “immediately,” which lined up with other provisions of the couple’s agreement.
–Deborah Elkins

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