As someone who writes for a living, I like to think that words matter. Not just generally, but specifically. Choosing the right word can make all the difference between getting a point across and leaving people more confused. Take the word “within” for example. What does it mean? That is a question the Washington Supreme Court was asked to answer, specifically how it pertains to a provision of state law that shields spouses from liability for each other’s premarital debts. But there is an exception in the law that allows creditors to access an individual’s earnings and accumulations to satisfy separate debts within three years of the marriage. Does that mean whether the judgment was entered within three years before the individuals got married or does it mean “not later in time than three years after the marriage.”
A copy of the ruling in the case of Nelson v. P.S.C. can be accessed by clicking here.
Matthew Nelson was married to Patricia Nelson when she incurred nearly $70,000 in medical debts around 2013. The defendant sued the spouses and obtained a default judgment in 2014. Matthew and Patricia divorced and in 2020, he married Melanie Nelson. In 2021, the defendant started garnishing Matthew’s wages. By now, the debt had nearly doubled, to almost $130,000.
The plaintiffs filed suit, alleging the defendant violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and state law in Washington by garnishing community property wages to satisfy a separate, premarital debt. The plaintiffs argued that because the judgment was obtained more than three years before they were married, that the judgment could not be enforced against their community property. Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, the Supreme Court determined the defendant’s interpretation of the statute was the correct reading.
Noting the arguments of the defendant, as well as that of ACA International, which filed an amicus brief, the Supreme Court found that the plaintiff’s argument “is unreasonable because a creditor cannot know when this three-year period preceding the marriage will occur until it is already over. The Nelsons’ interpretation ‘results in one party losing its right to enforce a judgment without notice and at a point in time that is only knowable retroactively.’ “