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Texas Appeals Court Finds Challenged Order Reflects Mediated Settlement Agreement

In a Texas divorce, the parties are sometimes able to reach a mediated settlement agreement (MSA).  Texas Family Code Section 6.602 sets out the requirements for an MSA to be binding.  To be binding the MSA must include a “prominently displayed statement” that it is not subject to revocation.  It must be signed by each party and by the party’s attorney if the attorney is present at the time the agreement is signed.  Sometimes, however, after reaching agreement on the terms of an MSA, the parties do not agree on what those terms really mean.

A wife recently appealed an amended Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) on the grounds it did not accurately reflect the parties’ MSA.  The parties had agreed on a MSA and were divorced in 2012.  The MSA set forth distribution of the husband’s Texas Municipal Retirement System (TMRS) retirement plan.  It provided he would keep the retirement through his employment.  If the retirement exceeded $100,000 as of the date of the MSA, the excess was to be divided equally between the parties.

The divorce decree stated that if the amount exceeded $100,000 as of January 12, 2012, the excess was to be divided equally between the parties.  The trial court signed a QDRO on July 10, 2013, but TMRS rejected it.  The trial court signed an amended order that stated the wife was awarded a portion of benefits payable which the husband may become entitled to receive from the retirement plan through accumulated contributions or annuity.  The order set forth the calculation for determining the wife’s portion. The court subsequently amended the QDRO again, setting out a specific number for part of the calculation.  The husband moved to set aside the Second Amended QDRO, arguing it allowed the wife to receive payment of interest that was not included in the MSA.  He also argued that the wife’s share should not include municipal contributions.  The trial court changed the calculation to exclude municipal contributions and signed a Third Amended QDRO.

The ex-wife moved for new trial and to vacate the order.  The trial court denied her motion, and she appealed.  She argued the order modified the terms of the MSA and the divorce decree.  She argued the Second Amended QDRO was unambiguous and did not need to be clarified.  Furthermore, she argued that excluding the portion based on municipality contributions changed the terms of the MSA.

The appeals court noted that the distribution in the MSA was based on a 2012 valuation of the husband’s contributions.  The municipal contribution was an employer match that would not become effective until the husband actually retired.  The wife, therefore, was not entitled to the municipal contribution under the terms of the MSA.

The appeals court found the MSA was unambiguous and that its terms were properly reflected in the Third Amended QDRO.  The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

A trial court must enforce an unambiguous MSA.  The court may enter a clarifying order to enforce compliance with a decree that was not clear, but may not alter the original disposition of property.  Here, the appeals court found the challenged order accurately reflected the terms of the MSA.

If you are facing divorce, a skilled Texas divorce attorney can help you through the process, including mediation.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.820 to set up a meeting to discuss your case.

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