Oblique Divorce Strategy #7 — Is anyone hurt? (part one of two)

My friend Allen is a professional chef who owns and operates his own restaurant. His wife, Elaine, has a career of her own, but she also takes care of the restaurant’s finances. She keeps the accounts in balance and also pays the bills by coordinating electronic transfers to creditors, managing the payroll and physically writing checks.

On the way to work, Allen noticed a Southern California Edison truck in the neighborhood. A half-hour later he received a courtesy call from an SCE representative advising him that the restaurant’s electric bill was so overdue that the power was scheduled for disconnection at 1:30 that afternoon.

Ordinarily, Allen would have referred the representative to Elaine, or he would have asked Elaine to call SCE to sort out the problem. But Elaine was on jury duty and therefore inaccessible. He had given scant attention to Elaine when she insisted on explaining her payment system to him, but he had a vague recollection that she delayed electronic payment of corporate bills until the day before a penalty would accrue in order to keep rather than give away the benefit of the float. It was too complicated for him.

Allen asked the SCE representative what it would take to maintain service. She explained the various charges to the account before giving him the number that mattered, which was $3,256. Did he want to pay it? Was there a choice? Restaurants need electricity to keep the refrigeration going and the lights on. So the answer was yes, he would pay the amount due. He was transferred to accounts payable.

The accounts payable clerk identified himself as Raymond, and he was gruff. Allen was surprised to learn that it was going to take more than money in a bank account or a valid credit card to pay the bill when SCE was so close to terminating power. SCE wanted the equivalent of cash. Since there wasn’t a conveniently located office to accept the payment, Allen was instructed to go to the nearest Rite Aid drug store where he could buy the equivalent of a gift certificate, which was coded in a way that would allow for an immediate electronic transfer to the recipient. Allen sensed that Raymond liked the prospect of turning off people’s electricity.

On his way to Rite Aid, Allen figured that Elaine miscalculated the last day for payment and, for just this once, the payment of a utility bill was his responsibility — not hers. It was what would happen to him if he tried to make the payment on the very last day. It wasn’t the kind of thing that happened to Elaine … ever. Well, it happened today. Instead of being annoyed, Allen felt grateful for the fact that this was the first time in years that he had to worry about getting a bill paid, and he appreciated the opportunity to step up and rise to the occasion. He got the gift certificate and called Raymond’s 800 number. Raymond’s attitude turned from gruff to surly when he realized that Allen was going to be able to complete the transaction.

A half-hour later the restaurant received another call from SCE. This time it was a woman identifying herself as a “manager.” She explained that Allen had been given the wrong amount for the payment necessary to avoid a shutoff. The balance was actually $4,798, so his previous payment was $1,542 short. While she had authority to rescind the order for the shutoff, she couldn’t postpone it. It was 1:05, so Allen would have to hurry to get another gift certificate from Rite Aid.

At this point Allen was certain a mistake had been made — not by Elaine but by SCE. Yet he had neither the information needed to prove this nor the time to argue. He’d get the money, make the transfer, get back to work and rely on Elaine to sort it out the next day. Speaking of Elaine, she called from the courthouse at 1:15.

“I’m on my way to Rite Aid to pay the electric bill. Something’s screwed up and they’re threatening to turn off our power in 15 minutes.”

Elaine said something like, “That’s ridiculous,” or “That’s impossible,” or “You’re going to Rite Aid to pay the electric bill?”

“I’m at Rite Aid, and I don’t have time to talk. We’ll figure it out tonight.”

The restaurant had a debit card with a $5,000 balance for emergencies, and Allen was going to need nearly every dollar in the account. He got the second gift certificate, used the 800 number to call Raymond, disappointed him again, and settled the balance with SCE.

Allen had saved the day; actually, he had saved it twice.

At 3 in the afternoon Elaine called during a court recess. She told Allen that she had just spoken to a representative at SCE and that the account was not delinquent.

“Of course it isn’t. I just made a $4,798 payment.”

“No. The payment is due tomorrow and the transfer is scheduled. There’s no record of a payment made today. I’ve got to go, but you should call. Here’s the number.”

So Allen called and confirmed what he had just been told by Elaine. He asked if a payment made two hours ago would appear for anyone looking at the account right now, and he was told that it definitely would show up. He was confused, but he concluded that the most likely explanation was that SCE didn’t appreciate the inefficiency of its record-keeping system. After all, he was told that the minimum payment due was $3,256 when it was really $4,798, so something was going wrong on their end.

But none of it really made sense. At 4 p.m., Allen remembered that he had an 800 number for Raymond in accounts payable. He called; there was no answer. He called again and let the phone ring 25 times. There was still no answer.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #7 — Is anyone hurt? (Part two)

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail info@burkefamilylaw.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.