Articles Posted in Child Support

After a court issues a Texas child support order based on an agreement of the parties, the trial court may only modify the order if there has been a material and substantial change in circumstances.  If there has been such a change, the court has the discretion to modify the order.  The court’s analysis depends on the resources of the obligor.  If the parent paying child support has net monthly resources equal to or less than an identified amount, currently $8,550, the court must base the presumptive award on a percentage of the net resources and the number of children.  If the net monthly resources are greater than this amount, then the court has the discretion to order amounts greater than the presumptive award, depending on the parties’ income and the “proven needs” of the children.  Thus, the court must determine the proven needs of the children before awarding an amount greater than that set by the guidelines.  If the children’s needs exceed the presumptive award, the court allocates the difference between the parties.  No party can be required to pay more than 100% of the proven needs of the children.  Unfortunately, neither the legislature nor the courts have clearly defined “needs,” but the Texas Supreme Court has stated that needs are not determined by the family’s lifestyle or the parents’ ability to pay.

In a recent case, a father challenged a modification that ordered him to pay an amount greater than the monthly guidelines.

The father also challenged whether there was a material and substantial change in circumstances, but the appeals court readily found that a significant increase in the father’s income since the Agreed Order was sufficient to support a modification.

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In some Texas child support cases, the court may find a party to be “intentionally underemployed.” Although child support is generally based on the party’s income and resources, the calculation may be based on earning capacity if the party is found to be intentionally underemployed or unemployed.

A father recently challenged a child support obligation in which he was found to be intentionally underemployed.  The father had petitioned for the bill of review on the grounds the child support determination had been based on an IRS tax-lien notice that contained incorrect information.  He alleged he had amended his earnings information with the IRS and asked the court to order a reasonable amount based on his true earnings. The trial court declared the child-support portion of the divorce decree void, reopened the issue of child support, and ultimately issued a new order.

After the court declared the child support void, the father filed an amended counter-petition, but did not allege any of the children had been emancipated or request a credit for amounts already paid.  The mother did not file an amended pleading.

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A parent can seek enforcement of the custody provisions of a court order through contempt of court.  Texas custody attorneys know, however, that contempt is only available if the original order is clear and specific enough to allow the other person to readily know what duties or obligations are expected of him or her.

In a recent case, a father sought contempt against his child’s mother.  The father moved for enforcement of possession or access to his child.  He asked that the court hold the child’s mother in contempt for violating his visitation rights in the divorce decree.  In the alternative, he requested that the court issue a clarifying order if it found the previous order was not specific enough to enforce through contempt.  The mother moved to dismiss the motion. The trial court granted the mother’s oral motion for dismissal of the father’s motion and the father appealed.

The appeals court noted that the trial court’s refusal to hold the mother in contempt was not appealable, but the dismissal of the father’s request for clarification was.

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Enforcing a child support order against a person who fails or refuses to pay can become time-consuming and expensive.  Texas family law provides multiple options for enforcing a child support order.  It also allows a person enforcing a child support order to recover reasonable attorney’s fees and costs if the court finds the other party “failed to make child support payments.” TEX. FAM. CODE § 157.167(a).

When a child support payment is not timely made, it becomes a final judgment by operation of law. TEX. FAM. CODE  § 157.261(a) In a recent case, the mother sought a writ of execution on the final judgment that arose as a result of the father’s failure to pay the child support.  The trial court found she had “a valid enforceable judgment” that was “wholly unsatisfied and subject to execution.”  The constable took possession of certain of the father’s property and held an execution sale.  Both the mother and father sought disbursement of the proceeds of the sale.

There was additional litigation related to the mother’s collection efforts.  The trial court ultimately ordered the father to pay $30,675 to the mother for attorney’s fees.  The trial court based the attorney’s fees on the attorney’s affidavit and timesheet.  The father appealed.

In some Texas child support cases, attorney’s fees may be awarded.  When a party fails to make child support payments, the court is to order that party to pay the other party’s reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs in pursuing the child support.  The court may waive the requirement for attorney’s fees, however, if it finds good cause to do so and states its reasons.

In a recent case, a father challenged an award of attorney’s fees to the child’s mother.   The father was ordered to pay child support in the divorce decree.  He subsequently sued to recover child support payments that he claimed were in excess of his obligation.  The mother denied the claims and asserted a counterclaim for back child support, unpaid medical support, and attorney’s fees.  The trial court denied the father’s request for overpayments, determined the amount of arrearages that was owed, and awarded the mother that amount.  The trial court also found each party was responsible for their own attorney’s fees.

The mother appealed, arguing the trial court should not have credited the father for payments that were made directly to her rather than through the registry of state disbursement.  The appeals court affirmed that portion of the order but found the trial court abused its discretion in failing to award the mother attorney’s fees.  The appeals court ordered the trial court to award the mother reasonable attorney’s fees or find good cause for denying such an award.  The trial court held a hearing and awarded the mother more than $17,000 in attorney’s fees.  The father appealed.

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Sometimes a change in circumstances causes a parent to want to change the amount of child support they are paying or receiving.  There are limitations on when a Texas child support order may be modified, however.  When the parties had previously agreed to a child support order that is different from what would have been awarded under the child support guidelines, the court may only modify it if there have been material and substantial changes to the circumstances of the child or a person affected by the order.  The trial court must look at the circumstances at the time of the order and compare them to the current circumstances.  There must be relevant financial information for both periods in the record, as seen in a recent Texas appeal.

The parents had previously entered into a mediated settlement agreement (MSA).  The trial court signed an agreed order naming them joint managing conservators and setting forth visitation schedules and child support obligations.  The father was required to pay $490 per month until the child turned 18.  The father’s occupation and income were not identified in the MSA or the agreed order.  The MSA stated the mother was self-employed but did not provide details.

The mother petitioned for a modification of the child support about five years later.  The father did not file an answer or appear at the trial.  At the trial, the mother submitted documents from the child’s doctors detailing his diagnoses. She attested that the child saw a psychiatrist every two weeks.  She testified the child’s schedule on school days needed to be almost exactly the same each day.  She stated he needed “a very high level of care.”  She said she thought his disability would keep her from full-time employment.

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In a Texas child support decision, a father’s attorney told the trial court the couple had reached an agreement about everything but the father’s child support obligation. His attorney told the court what the terms of their agreement were. These included that the mother would decide the kids’ primary residence, and the father would have standard possession with certain modifications. After deciding the amount of the child support payment, the lower court announced it approved their agreement.

The lower court entered a divorce decree, including the terms that had been announced on the record. The decree had a place for the father to sign indicating consent, but he didn’t sign. He asked for a new trial without an attorney, and when that motion was denied, he appealed without an attorney. He presented five issues.

He argued that the mother had instituted a malicious criminal prosecution against him that adversely affected his negotiations during divorce. He claimed there was newly discovered evidence in the form of his cell phone, which had been in the district attorney’s custody previously as proof in an ongoing criminal investigation.

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In a Texas child custody decision, the appellate court considered child custody and a petition to modify the parent-child relationship. The couple had married in 2010 and had their first child the next year. They separated and got back together multiple times, but they finally separated a last time in 2012, after police were called to stop a domestic fight.

The wife sought and received a two-year protective order against the husband that stopped him from going within 200 yards of her home, her workplace, or the child’s school, except when it was necessary for visitation. The divorce was finalized in 2013. The wife was named the child’s sole managing conservator, and the father was named possessory conservator with visitation rights.

The wife filed a motion for enforcement and a petition to modify a year later. She claimed her ex had violated the divorce decree by not paying child support, not attending an orientation at the neutral exchange location, and not going to therapy. She asked the court to hold her ex-husband in contempt and confine him. The ex-husband sued to reduce his child support obligation. She then asked for another protective order because the ex-husband had violated the original protective order by harassing her with texts in which he labeled her with derogatory names. A new protective order was granted.

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In a recent Texas appellate decision, a woman appealed the amount of the lower court’s award of monthly child support. She argued that it had been erroneously calculated. The case arose when a couple married in 1992 and had two kids. The mother sued for divorce. The court named her and the father as joint managing conservators with standard visitation. The father was ordered to pay $1,460.91 per month in child support, as well as provide health insurance for the kids. This amount was to be paid until their oldest kid either turned 18 or graduated from high school, and then it would be reduced to $1,168.73. The father was also ordered to provide health insurance for both children.

The mother asked for factual findings. The court found that the father had testified he made $174,000.00 in 2013. The court found that the presumptive amount established by the Guidelines was to be applied to his first $8,550.00 of net resources. Any amount beyond that required the court to look at the parties’ income and the child’s proven needs. The lower court calculated the amount based on the Guidelines for both kids.

The mother appealed, arguing that the lower court had conflated the father’s net monthly income with his gross monthly wages to decide child support. The appellate court found that the only issue was whether the lower court had calculated the amount of child support correctly. It noted that the lower court had broad discretion to determine child support, and it would review its decision under an abuse of discretion standard. There is an abuse of discretion if the lower court’s decision is arbitrary, unreasonable, or made without referring to guiding principles.

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In a recent Texas child support case, a mother appealed after the trial court enforced a mediated settlement agreement. She argued it was an error to enforce it because:  (1) it included a child support provision that violated public policy, (2) the mother took back her consent before it was approved, and (3) she wasn’t allowed to give evidence to bolster her family violence exception argument.

The case arose several years after a divorce. The parents mediated the matter and signed an irrevocable mediated settlement agreement, in which they agreed to different terms related to child support. The mediated settlement agreement included a provision under which there would be a limited standstill period, during which nobody would ask for child support increases.

The couple had signed the agreement and filed it. The agreement stated that it was meant to be a full and final settlement and that the parents had voluntarily signed it.

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