Articles Posted in Divorce

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Texas family law allows the parties to a divorce to enter into a binding mediated settlement agreement (MSA).  If the agreement meets certain requirements, a party is entitled to judgment on the agreement.  In some cases, however, one party may wish to challenge a mediated settlement agreement.  In a recent case, a wife challenged the enforceability of a mediated settlement agreement.

The couple was married for about 10 years when the wife decided to end the marriage.  She sought a mediator, and the parties attended mediation without attorneys and executed a written MSA.

The MSA made the parents joint managing conservators, with the husband having the right to designate the kids’ primary residence.  The parties agreed the husband would keep the marital home and the wife would not pay child support.  The MSA required the wife to file the divorce petition within 10 days.  The MSA further provided the case would be finalized any time after May 1, 2015.

The husband filed a divorce petition nine days after the MSA was executed.  He asked the court to approve and render judgment consistent with the MSA.  The wife filed an answer with a general denial.  The husband and his attorney appeared in court, but the wife did not receive notice of the hearing and did not appear.  The trial court rendered oral judgment on the MSA at the hearing.

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Texas law generally favors the freedom of contract.  This principle also applies to prenuptial agreements.  In Texas divorce cases, prenuptial agreements are generally valid and enforceable unless they were involuntarily signed or were unconscionable and signed without proper disclosures.

A wife recently challenged the enforceability of a prenuptial agreement. The couple met online while the wife lived in Vietnam.  When the husband visited Vietnam, he gave her a copy of the prenuptial agreement his attorney drafted.  The wife did not speak English, so she had it translated.  She requested a change to the agreement.

The wife came to the U.S. and told the husband she was pregnant a few months later.  He told her she needed to sign the agreement before they got married. The husband stated a paragraph was removed from the agreement based on the wife’s request.

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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 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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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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Adultery can have a devastating effect on the wronged spouse and on a marriage.  When adultery leads to a Texas divorce, the wronged spouse has the option of raising the issue of adultery in the divorce or allowing the divorce to be granted without fault.

Texas recognizes no-fault divorce, but also still has fault-based grounds for divorce.  A Texas divorce court may either grant a no-fault divorce upon a finding that the marriage is insupportable due to discord or conflict or it may grant a divorce based on fault for certain reasons, such as cruelty or adultery.  The court has the discretion to determine whether the divorce will be granted on insupportability or fault-based grounds.  Even if there is uncontroverted and sufficient evidence of adultery, the court has the discretion to grant a no-fault divorce.  The presence of adultery in the marriage, therefore, does not necessarily mean that the divorce will be granted based on adultery.

Although divorce can be granted without fault, there can be benefits to obtaining a divorce based on the other party’s fault.  A finding of fault can have a significant impact on property division and in some cases can also affect custody.

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Courts will not generally grant a Texas divorce during the pregnancy of a spouse.  Courts want to address all of the issues in the final divorce decree, including paternity, custody, and child support, and they cannot do that until the child is born.

Although courts are unlikely to grant the divorce during a pregnancy, that does not mean a spouse should wait until the child is born to file for divorce.  Texas has a waiting period of 60 days, meaning courts cannot issue a final divorce decree until at least 60 days have passed since the case was filed, except in certain cases involving family violence.  The paperwork can be filed and the process initiated during the pregnancy.  The parties can go ahead and start negotiating the terms of the divorce and try to work out any issues on which they agree.  If the parties do not agree on significant issues, the process could take several months and waiting until the child is born to file for divorce will just prolong these delays.

Texas family law has a presumption of paternity, meaning the husband is generally presumed to be the father of a child born during the marriage or within 300 days after the divorce; Texas Family Code §160.204. In some cases, however, the husband may not be the biological father of the child. If the husband is not actually the biological father, the presumption can be rebutted in two ways.  First, the husband can file a valid denial of paternity in conjunction with someone else filing a valid acknowledgement of paternity to establish the other person is the child’s father.  This method requires the husband, the mother, and the other man to all agree that the other man is the child’s father.  Otherwise, the presumption may only be rebutted by an adjudication of paternity.

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Although the U.S. Supreme Court required states to recognize same-sex marriages in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, the case left many issues related to such marriages unresolved.  Many of the laws already in place regarding marriage will apply to all marriages, but there are still a number of gray areas around same-sex marriage and divorce.

Custody and child visitation can be more complicated for same-sex couples.  In cases in which each parent is either a biological or adoptive parent of the child, issues related to the child should be handled in accordance with Texas family law in the same way they would for opposite-sex parents. Generally, that means there is a presumption that both parents will be named joint-managing conservators and share the rights and duties of parents.  The law requires the court’s primary focus to be on the best interests of the child in determining issues related to custody or visitation.

In many cases, however, the familial relationship between a same-sex couple and their children is not as clearly defined from a legal perspective.  In some cases, only one parent may be the biological parent, or only one parent may have formally adopted the child.  Prior to the recognition of same-sex marriages, the adoption of a child by a same-sex couple was a drawn-out process that did not allow the couple to adopt the child together.  While some couples solidified the legal relationship of the second parent in these situations through adoption, other couples may have chosen not to do so for a variety of reasons.

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