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A court in a Texas divorce case may only order spousal maintenance if certain conditions are met.  The court must then consider relevant factors in determining the duration, amount, and manner of the payments.  The other spouse may challenge a maintenance award if there is insufficient evidence to support a finding of eligibility for maintenance or if the trial court abused its discretion in ordering the specific award.

In a recent case, a husband challenged a maintenance award and the property division in his divorce.

Under Tex. Fam. Code Section 8.051, a spouse may receive spousal maintenance if he or she cannot earn enough income to meet his or her “minimum reasonable needs” due to certain specified circumstances.  In this instance, the applicable provision of the statute provides that a spouse may be eligible for maintenance if he or she does not have the ability to make sufficient income to meet his or her minimum reasonable needs and has been married for at least 10 years.

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In some Texas custody cases, the parents live near each other and where the case will be heard is not an issue.  In other cases, however, one parent has moved away and there may be a dispute over jurisdiction.  Although the child’s home state generally has jurisdiction, there are circumstances where the child does not have a home state.

In a recent case, a mother challenged the Texas court’s jurisdiction over the child’s custody.  The family lived in South Carolina when the child was born, but moved to Texas a few months later.  They went to Michigan to celebrate the child’s first birthday. The father said it was a vacation, but the mother said she planned to move to Michigan then.  They all went back to Texas, but the mother moved to Michigan with the child early the next month.

The father then filed suit seeking temporary child custody orders in Texas.  He sought the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence.  The Texas court entered temporary orders. The father added a divorce petition.

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In a Texas divorce case, a mediated settlement agreement (MSA) that meets the requirements set forth in the Texas Family Code is binding and cannot be revoked. Furthermore, the parties are entitled to judgment on such an MSA during the court’s plenary power.

In a recent case, a husband challenged a final decree nunc pro nunc issued by the court after the original final divorce decree failed to conform to the MSA.  The parties executed a binding MSA, which awarded the husband $50,000 of the wife’s 401(k).  However, when the court signed the agreed final decree, it awarded him $100,000 of the wife’s 401(k).  The decree noted the agreements were reached in mediation and it was “stipulated to represent a merger of a [MSA]…” No post-trial motion was filed and the court lost plenary power.

The husband later filed a Qualified Domestic Relations Order awarding him $100,000 of the wife’s 401(k).  The wife moved for a judgment nunc pro tunc on the grounds a clerical error in the final decree erroneously divided the estate in a way that was not compliant with the MSA.  She asked the court to correct that error.  The husband argued it was a judicial error that the court could not change.  The court signed a final decree of divorce nunc pro tunc awarding the husband $50,000 of the 401(k).  The husband appealed.

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Texas divorce cases are never easy, but can become even more complicated when one or both parents have mental health problems.  Mental health problems may, but do not necessarily, affect a parent’s competence to testify or participate in the proceedings.  Depending on the nature of the mental health problems, they may also affect the parent’s ability to care for the child.

In a recent case, a mother challenged a trial court’s order appointing the father as sole managing conservator.  According to the appeals court’s opinion, the husband filed for divorce when the child was just eight months old.  The trial court issued a temporary order appointing both parents temporary managing conservators.  The father was working in Las Vegas at the time and was granted possession on weekends when he was in San Antonio, with the mother having the child the rest of the time.  Both parents were ordered to participate in psychological evaluations.

The court limited the mother’s contact with the child to supervised visits after receiving the psychological evaluations.  The child was to live with his paternal grandmother in San Antonio, but granted the father possession when he was in San Antonio.

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It can be very difficult for a non-parent to get custody of a child in Texas custody cases.  A presumptive father may, however, have an advantage over other non-parents.  In a recent case, the appeals court found a presumptive father did not have to establish non-parent standing even though the court adjudicated someone else as the child’s father.

The biological father challenged the order appointing him, the child’s mother, and the mother’s former husband joint managing conservators with the stepfather having the right to establish the child’s residence. The biological father had intervened in the divorce proceeding between the mother and her husband. Although the trial court adjudicated him as the child’s father, it gave custody to the stepfather, who also got custody of his own two children.

The father questioned the stepfather’s standing under Section 102.004 of the Texas Family Code, which provides that a grandparent or other person may not file an original suit for conservatorship, but may intervene in a pending suit if there is proof appointment of a parent or the parents as managing conservator(s) “would significantly impair the child’s physical health or emotional development.”

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Most Texas custody cases are between a child’s parents, but in some cases other family members may be involved.  In a recent case, an uncle challenged a modification of the access and possession terms of a court order related to his brother’s child.  Although the trial court expressed an intention to clarify the original order, the appeals court found it had improperly made a substantive change.

The child’s father is deceased.  In 2016, the father’s brother filed suit to be named as the child’s primary conservator.  The uncle and the mother ultimately reached an agreement, which was incorporated by the court’s order.  The order gave primary possession to the uncle and periodic possession to the mother.  The uncle had the right to request the mother undergo drug testing once a month.  She was required to appear for drug testing at a designated location within 24 hours of the uncle sending notice.  The uncle was prohibited from sending notice Friday through Sunday at 9:00 a.m. If the mother failed to appear within 24 hours, the results would be deemed positive.  If the drug test results were positive or deemed positive, the mother’s periods of possession would be suspended until there was a further court order.

The mother moved to enforce the order a month after it was entered.  She alleged the uncle did not make the child available to her during her time.  She sought criminal and civil contempt, additional periods of possession, and attorney’s fees.  She also asked the court to clarify the original order if it found any part of it was insufficiently specific to be enforced through contempt.

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A trial court in a Texas divorce must divide community property in a just and right manner.  Property can be somewhat broadly defined as it relates to property division in a divorce case.  Many people do not realize that a lease of someone else’s property is subject to division in a divorce, unless the lease is shown to be separate property.

In a recent case, the wife challenged a property division that did not include a recreational lease held by the husband.  The wife appealed the property division, arguing error in the trial court’s division of property.  She argued the court failed to include a recreational lease in the community estate and that the court unfairly allocated the husband’s tax debt.  The court had allocated all of the tax debt to the husband, but the wife argued the court erred in using it to offset the value of the assets awarded to the husband.

At trial, there was evidence the husband signed a written lease for a ranch during the marriage.  The husband’s friend owned the property and testified the husband had helped him build or enhance some of the improvements on the property.  The owner testified he would sell the ranch to the husband for a significant discount and indicated he would extend the lease to the husband indefinitely as long as he paid the rent.

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Retirement can be a complex issue in Texas divorce cases.  In some cases, retirement accounts may not be fully vested.  In others, retirement income may be subject to periodic increases.  When retirement income is subject to increases, the spouse required to make ongoing payments should be sure he or she understands how to calculate those payments in light of the increases.

A former couple recently ended up back in court more than a decade after their divorce due to a dispute over how to calculate retirement increases.  The couple married in 1976 and divorced in 1998, after the husband’s retirement from the military.  The wife was awarded $754.80 per month of the husband’s retirement, and 60% of all increases “due to cost of living or other reasons…”  The husband was ordered to name the wife beneficiary under the Armed Services Survivor Benefit Plan (SBP).  The wife was ordered to pay 40% of the cost of the SBP, which was to offset the retirement award the wife received.

In 2012, the wife informed the husband he had underpaid her.  His new attorney told him he had been calculating his payments incorrectly. He had been calculating the payment using a method that resulted in payment of 60% of all cost of living increases cumulatively.  After receiving advice from counsel, he began paying his wife 60% of the increases only in the first year they were received.

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Generally, a trial court in a Texas divorce case has the discretion to divide marital assets.  A trial court can, however, abuse its discretion if it divides property without reference to guiding rules or principles and without evidence to support the ruling.  An appeals court recently found that a trial court abused its discretion by mischaracterizing separate property as community property and improperly divesting the husband of his separate property.

Both parties had been married previously, and both asserted throughout the trial that they had separate property.  They each pled and testified that they had separate property and submitted documentation showing they had separate property.  Additionally, each submitted sworn inventories and filed proposed property divisions admitting the other party had separate property.  Neither party ever disputed or contested the other’s claims. There were only two disputed issues before the court at the time of the trial:  how to divide the wife’s retirement account and whether there were any reimbursement claims against the separate property.

The trial court, however, issued a letter ruling dividing all of the assets as though they were community property, despite the various agreements, stipulations, and uncontested submissions.  The husband moved for reconsideration, and the wife filed a short response in opposition.  The appeals court noted she had received the majority of the husband’s separate property under the letter ruling.

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The Texas Family Code limits a trial court’s ability to issue temporary orders during a pending suit to modify the parent-child relationship.  The court cannot issue a temporary order designating or changing the designation of the person with the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence unless it is in the child’s best interest and the current circumstances would significantly impair his or her physical health or emotional development, the designated person has voluntarily given up primary care and custody, or the child is at least 12 years old and has identified the person he or she prefers to have the right to designate the primary residence.  The court is also prohibited from creating, changing, or eliminating a geographic limitation on the child’s primary residence unless those same conditions are met.

A father recently challenged a temporary court order requiring his children be enrolled in a school district where neither parent lived.

The divorce decree named the parents joint managing conservators of their three children, but granted the father the exclusive right to designate their primary residence with no geographic restriction.  Each parent had the independent right to make decisions about the children’s education.

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