It can be difficult to modify a child support order to decrease the child support obligation.  A father recently appealed the denial of his request for a decrease in his above-guideline child support obligation without step-downs.  Generally, a child support order for multiple children will provide for a decrease in the child support obligation as support ends for each child. In this case, however, the parties signed an agreement for additional child support.

Original Order

The children were 17, 15, and 12 when the parents divorced in 2019.  The parents were named joint managing conservators.  The father’s gross yearly income was about $500,000. Pursuant to the decree, he was required to pay the mother $4,000 per month until all of the children graduated high school or were emancipated.  He was also required to pay all of their uninsured medical, vision, and dental expenses until they reached the applicable deductible, and half after the deductible was met.  The parties signed a separate “Agreement Regarding Additional Agreed-Upon Child Support” that required the father to pay an additional $2,000 per month if his gross income was more than $500,000 in a calendar year.  Neither the decree nor the agreement had any provisions for step-downs.

The father testified he agreed to the extra provisions so the children and mother could stay in the area and in their current schools.  The mother claimed she would not be able to stay in central Austin without the above-guideline support and the children would be required to go to different schools.

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When a party does not file an answer or participate in a Texas divorce proceeding, the court may issue a default judgment against them.  A mother recently challenged the default divorce decree entered against her through a petition for bill of review.

A bill of review is brought when a party seeks to set aside a judgment that cannot be challenged by appeal or a motion for a new trial. A party seeking a bill of review generally must show that they have meritorious claim or defense they could not make due to an official mistake or the other party’s fraud, accident, or a wrongful act, with no fault or negligence by the petitioner.  Unless the petitioner claims they were not served, they must first present prima facie proof of a meritorious defense before trial. If the petitioner meets this burden, the court then conducts a trial on the merits. A petitioner shows they have a meritorious defense if the defense is not barred by law and they would be entitled to judgment if there is not contradictory evidence offered on retrial. Any factual dispute is resolved in favor of the petitioner.

The parties got married in 2012 and had two children together.  They separated in 2021.  The father petitioned for divorce in February 2022.  According to the appeals court’s opinion, the mother was service with process, but did not file an answer or otherwise participate.  The mother alleged that they “communicated openly” about child support and possession while the case was pending.  The mother contacted the court’s office in March regarding final hearing dates and was told nothing had been set, but a default divorce decree was entered on April 4.

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The Seventh District Court of Appeals recently considered a case involving significant issues of custody and child support. The trial court had appointed the father sole managing conservator and ordered him to pay child support to the mother. Both parents appealed.

Sole Managing Conservator

The mother argued the trial court erred in finding an incident in June 2021 prevented it from appointing both parents joint managing conservators.  According to the appeals court, the mother pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault on the father as a result of the referenced incident.  The trial court found a history of abuse by the mother against the father and that the mother pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault on the father regarding an incident on or about June 13, 2021. The court named the father sole managing conservator and the mother possessory conservator.  The court stated in its conclusions of law that “[b]ecause Petitioner pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault of Respondent, the Court cannot appoint the parties joint managing conservators.” The mother argued, based on this statement, that the trial court had concluded it was required to find a history of abuse based only on the guilty plea.

Tex. Fam. Code § 153.004(b), prohibits a court from appointing joint managing conservators there is credible evidence “of a history or pattern of past or present child neglect, or physical or sexual abuse by one parent directed against the other parent, a spouse, or a child . . .” The statute does not define the meaning of “history.”  The appeals court noted that it had not held that a single instance of physical abuse against the other parent necessarily constitutes a history of abuse, but had ruled that the trial court has the discretion to conclude that a single incident can constitute a history.  The appeals court therefore concluded that the trial court could have found the mother’s guilty plea to a misdemeanor assault charge sufficient to prove the existence of a history of abuse against the child’s father.

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Texas family law matters are often complex.  A father recently challenged a modification order changing his child support obligation after a lengthy and somewhat complicated litigation involving the child.

The mother petitioned for enforcement of child support and medical support in September 2022, asking the father be held in contempt and ordered to pay arrearages for child support and medical support, as well as attorney’s fees.

Enforcement and Modification Hearing

According to the appeals court, the parties and court treated the matter as a modification action as well as an enforcement action during the bench trial. The father had previously been ordered to pay $592 in child support and $92 in medical support monthly. It was established at trial that the mother had been receiving $834 in monthly Veterans Administration payments on behalf of the child since January 2021 because the father was a veteran.  The mother also testified the father received social security disability benefits and income from business ventures.  The father was not present, but was represented by counsel at trial.

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The purpose of Texas spousal maintenance is to give a spouse temporary rehabilitative support after deterioration of their ability to support themselves while taking care of the home and family during the marriage. Spousal maintenance is only available if the spouse meets certain statutory requirements.  A former husband recently challenged a spousal maintenance award.

The wife petitioned for divorce after about 28 years of marriage and sought spousal maintenance.  In the final decree, the trial court ordered the husband to pay her $2,000 per month for five years.

The husband appealed, challenging the wife’s eligibility, as well as the amount and duration of maintenance ordered.  The wife argued there was an agreed decree and the husband had waived his right to challenge it.

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When retirement accounts are an issue in a Texas divorce, the court will generally issue a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”).  A QDRO is an order that creates, recognizes, or assigns rights of an alternate payee to receive benefits from another person’s retirement plan.  Although a QDRO is often issued during the divorce, in some cases, a court may enter a post-judgment QDRO.  A former wife recently challenged a post-judgment QDRO, arguing it was void.

The parties had been married around nine years when the wife petitioned for divorce.  The trial court awarded the wife all sums, increases, proceeds, and other rights related to her employee retirement accounts, except $10,000 from her Teacher Retirement System (“TRS”) account went to the husband.  The divorce decree was signed on March 27, 2019 and the divorce was effective October 31, 2018.

Husband Seeks QDRO

The husband filed a proposed order on June 3 in the divorce case seeking a QDRO but did not serve the wife.  The court entered an order a few days later designating the husband alternate payee of the wife’s TRS plan and stating he was not to “receive more than a total of $10,000 plus interest. . ..”

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Generally, all evidence in a Texas custody case should be presented at trial.  In some cases, however, the court may decide to reopen evidence pursuant to Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 270.  In a recent case, a mother challenged the court’s custody order after it reopened evidence following the trial.

The only issue at trial was who would be primary conservator and get child support.  The court expressed an intent to give the mother the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence at the end of the trial.

The father subsequently moved to reopen evidence, seeking permission to present evidence on the child’s best interest.  He argued the mother had presented evidence of a stable relationship with a person identified by the court as “B.J.,” but misrepresented her relationship and he had not way of knowing this information before trial.  He argued she testified she and B.J. were in a stable relationship and cohabitating without mentioning a new romantic interest.  He argued she had represented her relationship as more stable than his.  He argued the court indicated the decision was close and this evidence could have been a deciding factor.

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Although Texas has recognized no-fault divorce since 1970, it also still recognizes fault-based divorce on grounds including adultery, cruelty, and conviction of a felony. Proving an at-fault ground for divorce can affect property division, spousal maintenance, and other matters in a divorce.

A spouse seeking divorce based on adultery must prove by “clear and convincing” evidence, beyond just suggestion and innuendo, that the other spouse had sexual intercourse with someone else during the marriage.  Evidence may include text or email messages, phone records, photos, or financial records.  Adultery can occur at any point during the marriage, even after the spouses stop living together.

Property Division

The court in a Texas divorce must divide the community estate in a “just and right” manner.  A court has broad discretion in formulating a just and right division, and may consider a number of factors in doing so.  One of those factors is fault in the breakup of the marriage.  A spouse alleging the other committed adultery may therefore seek a disproportionate share of the community property based on the alleged affair.

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Substance abuse can be devastating to families.  Texas family law recognizes the risk to children from parental substance abuse and seeks to protect them.

Termination of Parental Rights

One of the most severe potential consequences of substance abuse is termination of parental rights.  The court may terminate the parental rights of a parent who is the cause of a child being born addicted to alcohol or an illegal controlled substance.  Additionally, a court may order termination of parental rights if it finds by clear and convincing evidence that the parent used a controlled substance in a way that endangered the child’s health or safety and either failed to complete a court-ordered treatment program or continued to abuse a controlled substance after completing a court-ordered program. Tex. Fam. § Code 161.001.

Custody and Visitation

Even when parental substance abuse does not result in termination of parental rights, it can still have a significant result on custody and visitation.  The Texas Family Code includes a stated public policy to both ensure that children have frequent contact with parents who act in their best interest and to provide children with a safe, stable and nonviolent environment.  The primary consideration in custody matters is the child’s best interest.

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Parties to a Texas divorce may enter into an “agreement incident to divorce” regarding property division, liabilities, and spousal maintenance.  If the court finds the agreement’s terms are just and right, they become binding and the court may set forth the agreement or incorporate it by reference in the final divorce decree.  Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 7.006.  A former husband recently appealed a postdivorce property division order that found the marital home was the wife’s separate property, based on an agreement between the parties.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the agreement signed by the parties during the divorce proceedings stated that the marital home was community property, but that the parties agreed the wife would become its owner and assume the mortgage.  It further stated the husband granted, conveyed, and gave his interest in the property to the wife and agreed to executed any documents needed to effectuate and document the conveyance.  The husband moved out.

The final divorce decree did not address the home’s ownership.  The husband subsequently petitioned for postdivorce property division.  The trial court found the home was the wife’s separate property.  The husband requested findings of fact and conclusions of law.  The findings identified the home as the wife’s separate property.  The husband asked for additional findings and conclusions, but the trial court did not file any additional or amended findings.  He appealed.

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