In Texas spousal maintenance cases, the trial court has wide discretion in dividing the estate. The court may divide the property unequally if there is a reasonable basis to do so. It may consider a number of factors, including the capacities and abilities of each spouse, benefits the spouse who was not at fault would have received if the marriage had continued, their relative physical conditions, and their relative financial conditions and obligations. Although the trial court may also consider fault in causing the divorce, it does not have to do so and cannot use property division to punish the at-fault spouse.
A recent case examined whether an equal division of property and an award of spousal maintenance were proper. The couple married in 1999 and had two children together. During the marriage, the husband developed a substance abuse problem and was incarcerated for six years. In 2014, he was convicted of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver and was sentenced to 17 years. The wife filed for divorce on the day of his conviction.
The husband had previously received a $900,000 settlement for personal injuries, netting him more than $400,000. About $70,000 was used to pay household expenses and community debts, including mortgage payments and getting a car that was ultimately awarded to the wife. At the time of the last divorce hearing, he still had more than $300,000 held in his attorney’s trust account.
The wife sought a spousal maintenance disproportionate division of the property. She testified she had held the same job since around the time her husband was first incarcerated. She testified her total monthly expenses were more than $4,000, and evidence showed her net monthly income was about $2,000. There was documentation that the marital home was worth $96,500, but the wife testified it was worth much less and needed repairs.
The trial court awarded the residence to the wife, ordering her to assume the $54,000 debt on the property. It also awarded her the property in her possession, two vehicles, and her $1,000 retirement account. The husband was awarded the property in his possession, including the settlement proceeds, and his clothes and equipment that were at the home. The court also awarded him a house and real property that were found to be his separate property. The husband was ordered to pay child support until the 13-year-old turned 18 and spousal maintenance for three years. He appealed.
The husband argued the trial court abused its discretion by awarding the wife a grossly disproportionate share of the community property without a reasonable basis to do so. He argued it was manifestly unjust for the wife to receive most of the community assets when her earning potential was greater than his.
Since no findings of fact and conclusions of law were properly requested or filed, the trial court’s judgment would be affirmed if it could be upheld on any theory with supporting evidence. The appeals court noted that the main community asset was the marital residence. The appraisal district valuation was for more than $136,000, but about $54,000 was still owed at the time of trial. Additionally, the mortgagor bank had valued the home at $96,500, but the wife testified the value was even lower, and the home needed $10,000 – $15,000 in repairs. The appeals court noted the trial court could have found there was much less equity in the marital residence than the husband asserted. Additionally, the husband had separate property in the other house and his settlement proceeds. The only property the wife had was her small retirement account. The appeals court found the difference in the parties’ separate estates supported the court’s unequal division of the marital property.
The husband also argued an abuse of discretion in ordering him to pay maintenance. The trial court may not order maintenance that is more than the lesser of $5,000 or 20% of the spouse’s average monthly gross income. For the maintenance award of $1,200 to be appropriate, there would have to be evidence the husband’s average monthly gross income, as defined in the statutes, was $6,000. The husband, however, was incarcerated when the wife filed for divorce and at the time of the final hearing. The wife conceded he could not work or generate income while he was incarcerated. The appeals court noted that this was not voluntary unemployment or underemployment; the husband was unable to earn while imprisoned. Furthermore, there was nothing in the records showing when the husband may be released. Finally, there was no evidence of the husband’s earning potential once he was released. There was no evidence of his previous income, and the appeals court noted that his criminal history, age, and injuries may limit his ability to get and keep a job in the future.
The appeals court found the husband did not have any income from any of the sources identified in the statute. A maintenance calculation is based on income, rather than funds already within a spouse’s possession. Thus, it would not be appropriate to include the funds that had been received from the personal injury settlement in the calculation. The appeals court found the trial court had abused its discretion in awarding spousal maintenance.
The appeals court modified the decree to remove the spousal maintenance award and affirmed the modified decree.
This case shows that, even when a spouse cannot meet monthly expenses, spousal maintenance may not be appropriate if the other spouse does not have sufficient income to justify it. If you are facing divorce, an experienced Texas divorce attorney can help you. Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.
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