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Sometimes, people served with divorce papers do not respond.  They may be unsure what to do or they may not want to face the realities of divorce.  Failing to respond will not prevent the divorce, however. If a respondent fails to file an answer to a Texas divorce petition, the court may still grant the divorce through a default judgment.  Although the petitioner must submit evidence supporting their material allegations and the property division must still be just and right, the divorce may be granted on terms that are unfavorable to the respondent.

A husband recently appealed a default judgment that granted a divorce on the ground of adultery. The parties married in 2008 and had two children together. They entered into a post-marital agreement in 2018.  Under that agreement, if the wife filed for divorce because of the husband’s adultery, she would get conservatorship of the children without a geographical restriction, spousal maintenance, and certain property in which the husband held a separate property interest. The wife petitioned for divorce the next year and alleged adultery.  The husband did not file an answer.

Default Judgment is Entered

The wife submitted an affidavit to prove up the divorce that incorporated the post-marital agreement by reference.  She asked the court to approve the post-marital agreement as the agreement of the parties. The trial court granted the divorce on the ground of adultery. The husband appealed.

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iStock-483613578A trial court that has divided property in a Texas divorce must provide written findings of fact and conclusions of law, including how it characterized and valued the assets and liabilities, if a party properly requests them. In a recent case, a husband challenged the court’s refusal to specify the valuation it used for the parties’ assets when there was no request for findings of fact and conclusions of law.

Wife Seeks Fault-Based Divorce

When the wife filed for divorce, she asked for a disproportionate share of the community estate.  She claimed the husband was at fault in the break-up of the marriage.

The wife submitted a spreadsheet of the assets she requested showing both her and the husband’s valuation of each.  She valued the assets she requested at $2,084,714, and the husband valued them at $2,585,450. She also presented a spreadsheet of the assets she proposed be awarded to the husband, with her valuation totaling $2,662,329 and the husband’s totaling $2,612,102.

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iStock-483611874Sometimes Texas child-support disputes can continue well past the child’s eighteenth birthday.  A Texas appeals court recently decided a case regarding back child support for children who were in their 50s.

This case dealt with a writ of income withholding and child-support liens.  Pursuant to Tex. Fam. Code § § 158.301, a parent may file a notice of application of judicial writ of withholding if there is a delinquency in child support that is at least the total due for a month. The notice must include the amount of the arrearages and the amount to be withheld. Tex. Fam. Code § 158.302(1).  The obligor may file a motion to stay the writ within 10 days of receiving the notice.  Tex. Fam. Code § 158.307(a).  The clerk of court may not deliver the judicial writ of withholding until a hearing has occurred. Tex. Fam. Code § 158.308.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the trial court ordered the father to pay child support when the parents divorced in 1970.

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iStock-543681178Many assets divided in a Texas divorce are distributed during or soon after the divorce, but some assets, such as retirement benefits, may not be distributed for many years. Issues involving retirement benefits may continue or arise several years after the divorce is final. A Texas appeals court recently decided a dispute involving retirement benefits between parties who divorced in 2008.

Both parties were in the military when they divorced.  The stipulated final divorce decree divided the husband’s retirement benefits equally between them and awarded the wife 100% of her “retirement plan” or other benefits resulting from her employment.

Husband Argues He Agreed to Divorce Decree While Under Duress

The wife petitioned for a clarification of the division of the husband’s military retirement in 2017. The husband argued he agreed to the property division under duress because the wife had threatened to tell his superiors he was having an affair if he did not agree. He claimed he only agreed because he was concerned he would face a court martial or negative effects on his chances of promotion if she reported him.

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iStock-1175949984A trial court generally has broad discretion in deciding whether to impose a geographic restriction on the child’s primary residence in a Texas custody case.  A geographic restriction limits where the children’s primary residence may be.  As with other aspects of a custody case, the primary consideration is whether the restriction is in the best interest of the child. A geographic restriction can help ensure the child maintains relationships with the non-custodial parent, extended family, and the community.  In some cases, however, a parent may have good reasons to want to move with the child. The Texas Supreme Court has identified a number of factors in determining whether a move is in a child’s best interest: how it would affect relationships with extended family, how it would affect the non-custodial parent’s visitation and communication with the child, whether a meaningful relationship between the child and non-custodial parent could be maintained with a visitation schedule, the child’s current contact with both parents, the reasons for and against the move, the child’s age, the child’s ties to the community, and the child’s health and educational needs. Lenz v. Lenz.

A father recently appealed an order granting the mother the exclusive right to designate the primary residence without a geographic restriction when the mother intended to move out-of-state with the children.

Mother Offered Opportunity in Arizona

The trial court made several findings of fact. The trial court found the parents moved to Austin so the mother could attend graduate school and intended to stay there until she received her PhD. They had agreed to live there temporarily until the mother got a faculty position at a university.  She earned her PhD in 2012.  The parties’ twin children were born prematurely in 2013, and the mother took time to care for them instead of advancing her career.  During the marriage, she only applied for positions in cities where the father would also have potential job opportunities.  They agreed she should apply for a position in Arizona in 2018, but the job was not filled at that time. The parties separated in February 2019 and the mother continued to be primary caregiver.

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iStock-654702696A court dividing property in a Texas divorce must do so in a “just and right” manner.  The division does not have to be equal if the court has a reasonable basis to order a disproportionate division of the community estate. Texas courts have recognized a number of non-exclusive factors a court may consider, including differences in the parties’ earning capacities or incomes, difference in their ages, their relative financial circumstances, and the value of their separate estates.

A former husband recently challenged a property division, arguing the court had intended to achieve an equal distribution, but did not do so.

Comparative Circumstances of the Parties

The parties married in 1986 and the husband petitioned for divorce in 2019. The husband testified he was 57 years old and the wife was 56. Both parties were engineers.  He testified they earned about the same amount each year and both were healthy.  The both had substantial retirement benefits.

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iStock-1147846829Grandparents sometime take on a parental role in the lives of their grandchildren.  In some circumstances, such grandparents may have standing (i.e., the right to sue) for possession and access to the children. Parents have a fundamental right to make decisions regarding their children, however. Generally, a court in a Texas custody case cannot interfere with a fit parent’s right to make decisions for their child by awarding access or possession to a non-parent over the fit parent’s objection, unless the nonparent overcomes the presumption that the fit parent is acting in the child’s best interest. In a recent case, a father challenged a court order naming the grandmother possessory conservator.

Prior Order Provides for Parental Rights and Custody

According to the appeals court’s opinions, the parents were joint managing conservators, with the mother having the exclusive right to determine the primary residence. The mother later became ill and the grandmother, who lived with her, cared for the children. When the mother died in January 2021, the  grandmother refused to return the children to the father. He obtained a Writ of Habeas Corpus.

The grandmother intervened and asked to be appointed sole managing conservator with possession or access to the children.  The father argued she grandmother did not meet the requirements for grandparent access under Tex. Fam. Code § 153.432 or managing conservatorship pursuant to Tex. Fam. Code § 102.004.

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iStock-483613578A geographic restriction in a Texas custody order helps ensure the parent without physical custody has access to the child, but it can also impose severe limitations on the mobility of the parent with physical custody of the child.  In a recent case, a mother challenged the imposition of a geographic restriction on the child’s primary residence by the trial court after a jury found she should be the child’s sole managing conservator.

Modification Suit Filed After Prior Order

The final divorce decree named the parents joint managing conservators and gave the mother the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence within a specific county.  The father later petitioned for modification, seeking the right to designate the child’s primary residence. The mother asked the court to remove the father as a joint managing conservator and name her sole managing conservator with the exclusive rights set forth in Tex. Fam. Code § 153.132, including the right to designate the primary residence.  She also asked for an additional $100 per month in child support.

The jury found the mother should be appointed the sole managing conservator.  No other issues were presented to the jury. The judge’s letter ruling indicated she wanted to place a geographical restriction on the mother’s right to designate the child’s primary residence, but was uncertain of the court’s authority to do so under the circumstances.  The letter ruling stated the court imposed the geographic restriction if both parties’ counsel agreed it could, but not if counsel agreed it could not.  If counsel disagreed as to whether the court could impose the restriction, the court requested they provide authorities on the issue. The trial court denied the modification of the child-support obligation.

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iStock-531351317When a court determines the amount of Texas child support a parent is obligated to pay, it must consider that parent’s net resources.  The statute sets forth certain items to be included in the parent’s net resources and other items that are not to be included.  Tex. Fam. Code § 154.062.  An appeals court recently had to determine if a trial court could consider an item that is not specifically included in the statute.

The divorce decree required the father to pay child support, provide health insurance, and reimburse the mother for 50% of non-covered health-care expenses.

Mother Moves for Modification

The mother subsequently moved to modify the decree to change the father’s possession and access and to increase his child-support obligation.  She also moved to enforce the decree, claiming the father failed to reimburse her for health-care expenses.

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iStock-1132277483In determining the Texas child-support obligation of a parent, the court may consider whether that parent is intentionally unemployed or underemployed.  If the court finds the parent is intentionally unemployed or underemployed, it may apply the support guidelines to that parent’s earning potential, rather than to their actual earnings.  Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 154.066.  The court does not have to find the parent was attempting to avoid child support to find intentional unemployment or underemployment.

In a recent case, a father challenged the denial of his request for modification of his child-support obligation following a change in jobs that resulted in a significant salary reduction.  When the parties divorced in 2015, the trial court appointed the parents joint managing conservators and gave the mother the exclusive right to determine the children’s primary residence. The father was ordered to pay $1,600 in monthly child support and to maintain insurance for the children.

Mother and Father File Competing Modification Suits

The mother petitioned to modify the medical-support provision to give her the obligation to maintain medical insurance in 2019.  The father counter-petitioned to reduce his monthly child support based on a change in his salary.

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