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Texas Appeals Court Won’t Take Piecemeal Approach to Property Division Appeal

In a Texas divorce, the division of community property must be just and right.  The goal is an equitable, but not necessarily equal, division. A party may not get the specific items that he or she wants, but that does not necessarily mean that the division of property is not just and right. In a recent case, the wife challenged the specifics of the property division.

According to the court’s opinion, the husband’s retirement annuity was worth $234,000 when he retired from his job. There was evidence that he withdrew funds from the account and hid them from the wife. There was evidence that he used the funds for household expenses and expenses related to the couple’s horses.  The retirement account was worth approximately $50,000 at the time of trial.

The husband admitted that he did not report the withdrawals on the joint tax returns for several years, resulting in a $20,000 liability to the IRS. After the separation, the wife hired a CPA to seek innocent spouse status for her. She testified that she wanted the husband to pay the $3,000 for the CPA’s services.

The wife testified that she had worked throughout the marriage, but there was no testimony regarding which spouse earned more or accrued more money in their retirement account.

The husband testified that he wanted one of the vehicles, one of the horse trailers, and two specific horses.

The trial court ordered the husband to be solely responsible for any IRS issues related to the 2015 and 2016 tax years. Since 2017 tax returns had not been filed yet, each party was responsible for their own.

The trial court noted that there was limited evidence regarding the vehicles, but it awarded the Dodge truck to the wife and the Ford Fusion to the husband.  The court awarded the cheaper of the horse trailers to the husband, along with his tack.  The court said that one of the horses that the husband requested would be his separate property and awarded him the other horse that he requested. The wife was awarded the other two horses.

Each party was awarded the retirement benefits that they had individually accumulated and the property in their possession.  The court split the CPA fees.

The wife appealed, arguing that the court failed to make findings of fact and conclusions of law despite her requests.  The appeals court found that the error was harmless.  The trial court stated the reasons for its disposition in open court, so the wife’s ability to appeal was not harmed.

The wife also argued that specific awards were inequitable.  The appeals court declined to take the wife’s “piecemeal approach” to the property division, but instead it looked at the property division as a whole.

The wife argued that she was entitled to half of the husband’s retirement account, but the husband began working for that employer years before the parties married.  There was no evidence showing the value of the account at the time of the marriage.  Although a significant amount had been spent, there was no evidence that those funds did not benefit the community estate. Based on these facts, the appeals court rejected the wife’s claim that the husband “stole” most of the funds in the account.

The wife did not present evidence of how much money was in her own retirement account. There was no evidence of the parties’ comparative earnings.  The trial court considered the no-fault nature of the divorce and how the funds from the husband’s retirement account were used, and it awarded each party their own retirement account.  The appeals court found no abuse of discretion in how the trial court awarded the retirement accounts.

The wife also argued that the husband should pay all the CPA fees.  The appeals court noted that the services only benefited the wife, and the husband had not hired the CPA.  The trial court did not abuse its discretion in ordering each party to pay half the fees.

The wife argued that the Ford Focus belonged to her.  The appeals court noted, however, that there was no evidence showing how it was purchased, its value relative to the other vehicle, or who drove it.  Furthermore, the wife was asked if she had a Ford, and she responded that “Mine is a Dodge.”  Without detailed evidence regarding the vehicles, the court awarded one to each party, giving the wife the vehicle that she indicated was hers.

The appeals court also found no abuse of discretion in how the trial court handled the tax liabilities.

The appeals court found that the wife failed to meet the burden of showing that the division was unjust and that the trial court had abused its discretion.  She had not presented evidence of the value of the property awarded to each party and did not argue that she was awarded a lower value than the husband.  The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s property division.

This case shows the importance of presenting evidence regarding the value of the marital assets to be divided.  Without it, it is difficult to show that the trial court’s property division was unjust.  If you are facing a divorce, a skilled Texas divorce attorney will fight to get you the best property division possible.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200 to set up an appointment to discuss your case.