Both lawyers and laypersons have heard of the “law of unintended consequences.” This is when policymakers craft new laws to address one set of problems, only to create a new set of problems with the laws they have just passed.
Much has been written in recent years about the unintended consequences of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.” Some argue that this new law will hurt the economy or negatively impact health service delivery in the United States. This may well be the case; however, it will be many years before the full impacts are known.
This is not to say that we have not already seen some unintended consequences from the new law in the family law context. In fact, the provisions related to healthcare coverage for dependent children already have the potential to directly impact the interpretation of existing Property Settlement Agreements (PSAs) and Final Divorce Decrees between ex-spouses.
This was specifically true in the recent Virginia Appeals Court case of Kolmetz v. Hitchcock. In this case, the Virginia Court of Appeals held that a father had an obligation to continue to provide health insurance coverage for his son, even though the child had reached the age of 18.
In reviewing the matter, the Court looked at the Final Decree of Divorce, which obligated the father to provide health insurance “until such time as the child is no longer an eligible dependent.” Relying on this language, the father argued that since the child was now 19 and had graduated from high school he was no longer “an eligible dependent.”
The Court, however, disagreed and looked at the Final Decree in conjunction with the PSA, which was incorporated into the decree by reference. The PSA stated that the father was to provide insurance, “as long as such insurance is reasonably available to [Kolmetz] through his place of employment.”
In seeking to harmonize the two provisions, the Court stated that “dependent,” as used in the final decree and mimicked in the March 16, 2010 JDR court order, means until the insurance carrier no longer provides coverage for the child under the parent’s policy regardless of the child’s age.” In so doing, the Court ordered that the father continue providing coverage.
Although not specifically referenced by the Court, the issue of Obamacare looms large here because this law requires that insurance companies that offer coverage for children make it available to them up until age 26! Under the Court’s ruling, the “child” will cease to be a “dependent” only if the insurance carrier no longer provides coverage. As such, it seems that this father may be providing much more than he bargained for!
Life Lesson: Carefully read any agreement and consult with a legal professional to ensure you understand all legal obligations that flow from it before you sign it.