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Texas Court Has Discretion in Determining Duration of Spousal Maintenance

In a Texas divorce, if one spouse does not have sufficient property to provide for his or her minimum reasonable needs and is not able to earn enough income to provide for those needs and certain other circumstances are met, the court may order spousal maintenance. Tex. Fam. Code § 8.051.  The duration of spousal maintenance is generally based on the length of the marriage, with 10 years being the greatest duration, for marriages longer than 30 years.  However, in some circumstances, the court may order maintenance for a longer duration.  When the spouse is unable to provide for their needs due to disability, the court may order maintenance for as long as they meet the eligibility criteria.  Tex. Fam. Code § 8.051.

A wife recently challenged her divorce decree, in part because of the duration of the maintenance award.  After the husband filed for divorce, the wife requested temporary spousal support and spousal maintenance after the divorce.  The husband was ultimately ordered to pay $400 per month temporary support, starting November 15, 2015.   The wife moved to enforce the order after the husband failed to start paying on time, and he began paying the following April.

At a hearing in October 2018, the wife testified she was disabled and it affected her ability to get employment.  She testified regarding her retirement, her disability benefits, and her monthly expenses.  She said she would not be able to pay for her expenses without spousal support.

After the hearing, the judge sent an email to counsel, with a memorandum named “Property Division” attached.  The Property Division Document contained a statement that the husband would “pay $400 per month beginning Nov[ember] 1, 2018.” The wife’s attorney did not receive the email for several days because it was sent to an incorrect email address.  The judge and the husband’s attorney continued emailing regarding the maintenance award.  The judge stated the duration would be 10 years total, starting when the payments first started under the temporary orders in 2015.

The wife moved to enter judgment and asked the court to sign her proposed decree, which included a provision matching the email attachment stating the husband would pay $400 per month starting November 1, 2018.  She argued the email was a rendition of judgment for indefinite spousal support.  The court held another hearing.  The husband’s attorney acknowledged he had an email conversation with the judge, but argued it was a clarification and not a substantial change to the ruling.  The wife argued the email ruling had not addressed whether the court found she was disabled and had changed the start date for the maintenance award.  The court signed the final decree in April 2019. The final decree stated that the husband was to pay maintenance beginning November 1, 2018, continuing until seven years passed, the death of either party, the wife’s remarriage, or another court order, whichever came first.

The court filed its findings of fact and conclusions of law.  The court did not make any finding specifically addressing the wife’s disability, but did find she lacked “the ability to earn sufficient income to provide for [her] minimum reasonable needs…” The court noted it had considered future earning potential and ability of the parties to meet their minimum reasonable needs.

The wife appealed.  She argued the email was a rendition of judgment and the trial court erred in changing the start date and duration of maintenance in the final decree.  The appeals court pointed out that a judgment is rendered when it is officially announced in open court or in a written memorandum filed with the clerk.  The wife argue the judge rendered the decision when he signed and filed with the clerk the Property Division memorandum.  She argued the decree was incorrect because it included different terms.

The body of the email, however, stated, “If anyone feels I left something out, let me know.” The appeals court found the email indicated an intent to render the ruling at a later time, not at the time the email was sent.  He gave the parties an opportunity to make suggestions.  Because the email did not constitute a rendering of the ruling, the appeals court rejected the wife’s argument that the final decree changed an indefinite maintenance award to one that only lasted for seven years.

The wife argued the judge should not have considered the spousal support she received under the temporary orders to set the duration in the final decree.  The statute, however, provides that the court “shall determine the nature, amount, duration, and manner of periodic payments considering all relevant factors, including…” Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 8.052.  The appeals court noted that the word “including” before the list of factors indicated the list was not exclusive and the judge could consider other relevant factors.  The appeals court found no abuse of discretion in the court’s consideration of factors that were not listed in the statute.

The wife also argued the trial court erred in determining the maintenance duration based on section 8.054(a)(1)(C) of the Texas Family Code.  This section states the court may not order maintenance for more than 10 years if the marriage lasted for 30 years or more.  The wife argued the court should instead have applied section 8.054(a)(2)(A), which along with 8.054(b), allows the court to order maintenance to a spouse whose ability to provide for her minimum reasonable needs is substantially diminished due to physical or mental disability as long as she continues to meet the eligibility criteria.

The wife told the court she started receiving disability benefits the previous year.  She testified she could not get a job because of her disability.  The husband did not contest the issue and testified he was aware of the disability. The appeals court found the trial court had the discretion to weigh the evidence and find the wife was not disabled to the point she required indefinite spousal maintenance.

The appeals court affirmed the final decree.

Spousal maintenance can be a very contentious issue.  A skilled Texas divorce attorney can help you get the best possible results.  Schedule an appointment to discuss your case by calling McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.

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