Addressing an Error in a Texas Child-Support Mediated Settlement Agreement

iStock-1125625723Parties to a Texas suit affecting the parent-child relationship may enter into a mediated settlement agreement (“MSA”) to resolve one or more issues in their suit.  An MSA is binding if it prominently states in bold or underlined font or in capital letters that it is not subject to revocation, is signed by the parties, and is signed by the parties’ attorneys who are present at the execution. Tex. Fam. Code § 153.0071. When these requirements are met, a party is entitled to judgment on the MSA. Because an MSA is a contract, it is construed according to the contract-interpretation principles.  If an MSA is ambiguous, there is a fact issue of the intent of the parties. A Texas appeals court recently considered what should happen when an MSA included a discrepancy between the stated amount of child support and the calculation for determining child support.

Mother and Father Enter into Settlement Agreement

Following mediation, the parents entered into an MSA that included an attached handwritten page with a child-support calculation as well as four W-2s showing the wages the father earned.  The parties initialed each page of the MSA, but not the W-2s.

The MSA identified the father’s child-support obligation as $1,062.60 per month. The attachment stated that “child support is based on [the father’s] representation that he has no rental income and is calculated pursuant to the attached calculations and Exhibits.”

Trial Court Finds Scrivener’s Error – Fixes Miscalculation

At a hearing, the trial court found there was a scrivener’s error in the calculation, based on a misreading of one of the W-2s.  The calculation included $2,500 where it should have been $25,000. The trial court acknowledged it could not modify the MSA, but stated a belief it could correct a scrivener’s error. The trial court ultimately entered the order as proposed by the mother, including monthly child support of $1,461.24.

The father appealed, arguing the trial court erred in changing the child support obligation from the amount stated in the MSA.

The father argued the rules regarding scrivener’s errors did not apply, and that any ambiguity in the MSA was a drafter’s dispute that should be arbitrated with the mediator.  The wife argued the MSA was ambiguous and the trial court had the discretion to harmonize it after considering the agreement as a whole.

Appeals Court Finds Settlement Agreement Ambiguous, and Correction Permissible

The appeals court found there was a conflict between the child-support total stated in the body of the MSA and the amount derived from the calculation stated in the MSA.  The appeals court found the MSA was ambiguous, because the stated amount of child support and the calculation could not be harmonized.

The father argued the error was not a scrivener’s error.  He argued that a scrivener’s error reflects a difference between the decree and judgment made as a mistake in drafting the order.

The appeals court noted the discrepancy was not a transcription error or other clerical error.  Instead, the discrepancy reflected contradictory terms that made the MSA ambiguous. Accepting the father’s argument that $1,062.60 was correct would not give effect to all of the provisions of the agreement.  The appeals court found the trial court had the discretion to determine the proper calculation to give full effect to all of the MSA’s terms.

The appeal s court rejected the father’s argument the trial court was required to send the case back to the mediator.  The trial court had all the information it needed to resolve the ambiguity.  The record also indicated the mediator had been contacted and “declined to arbitrate” the discrepancy.

The father also argued the court could not modify the MSA due to a mutual mistake. A mutual mistake occurs when the written agreement does not reflect the common intent of the parties. A party must show the true agreement and that the contract does not accurately reflect the agreement due to a mutual mistake. The wife argued there was an ambiguity in the MSA, not just a mutual mistake. The MSA included a sum and a method for calculating the sum that would not arrive at the same sum. The appeals court found that there was an ambiguity and that there was not proof in the record of a mutual mistake.

The appeals court therefore affirmed the trial court’s order.

Child-Support Cases Can be Difficult – Even After Reaching a Settlement. Call the Experienced Attorneys at McClure Law Group Today

This case shows that disputes can continue even if the parties have seemingly reached an agreement. An experienced Texas child support attorney can help protect you even if you believe you and your child’s other parent may reach an amicable resolution.  Set up a consultation with McClure Law Group by calling our office at 214.692.8200.

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