In a jury trial, the court must submit to the jury the instructions and definitions needed for it to render a verdict.  The court cannot comment directly on the weight of the evidence, but an incidental comment on the weight of the evidence may be acceptable.  Tex. R. Civ. P. 277. A husband recently appealed his divorce decree, arguing the trial court erred in failing to give a requested jury instruction and improperly commenting on the weight of the evidence.

The Trial

According to the appeals court, the husband petitioned for divorce in August 2019, seeking a disproportionate share of the marital estate and alleging the wife committed fraud on the marriage. He asked the court to confirm the marital residence was part separate property and set aside a 2019 gift warranty deed conveying it to the wife.  He alleged the deed was “done by mistake, undue influence, and under duress.”

The wife disputed the husband’s claims of mistake or fraud.  She also sought a disproportionate share of the property and requested exclusive possession and use of the residence.

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A trial court in a Texas divorce retains subject matter jurisdiction to enforce a decree or to clarify ambiguity in the decree.  Texas strongly favors finality of judgment, so the court may not make substantive changes to the property division in a divorce decree once it has become final.  The court does not have the authority to “amend, modify, alter, or change” the final property division despite errors in characterizing the property or applying the law.   The court may, however, issue orders to clarify an ambiguous decree or to enforce the decree.  A court interprets a Texas divorce decree according to the plain language of the decree. The court must interpret the decree as a whole and give effect to all provisions.  A former wife recently challenged a court order purporting to clarify the final divorce decree, arguing it substantively changed the property division.

Divorce Decree and Subsequent Order

The trial court filed with the clerk and sent the parties a letter rendering the property division following the bench trial.  The letter awarded to the wife as separate property 50% of three specified accounts and 50% of any stocks, options, or retirement accounts that were not listed in the letter but had vested as of a specified date.  The court directed the husband’s counsel to draft a decree comporting with the letter rendition.

The husband’s attorney added details that were not expressly included in the letter. He specified the date when the balances would be calculated for the property division and included a dollar amount for each account.  The parties’ attorneys approved the draft divorce decree as to form.  The trial court signed the decree as drafted by the husband’s attorney.  The decree became final without either party appealing.

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In a Texas nonjury custody proceeding, upon the request of a party or certain other interested individuals, the court must interview a child who is at least 12 years old or may interview a child under 12 in chambers to determine their wishes regarding conservatorship or the person who will have the exclusive right to determine their primary residence.  Tex. Fam. Code § 153.009(a).  The interview is intended to help the court make determinations regarding conservatorship and possession, but the court still has discretion to determine the child’s best interest.  Tex. Fam. Code § 153.009(c).  Case law has held that the court retains its broad discretion and can either consider the information from the interview or even ignore it.  In re A.C. A father recently appealed a modification order that was not consistent with the child’s preference.

The parents were appointed joint managing conservators of their then two-year-old child in their 2009 divorce, with the father having the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence. A modification order in 2013 set forth the mother’s possession schedule, dependent on where she lived.

Modification Proceeding

The mother petitioned for modification in 2021, seeking the right to designate the child’s primary residence without a geographic restriction. She also asked that the father be limited to supervised visitation.

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A parent seeking modification of a Texas custody order must prove a material and substantial change in circumstances has occurred and that the modification would be in the child’s best interest.  Tex. Fam. Code § 156.101.  A father recently appealed an order naming the mother sole managing conservator of their three children after the parents had previously shared joint managing conservatorship.

The parents’ agreed divorce decree named them both joint managing conservators of their three children and gave the mother the exclusive right to designate their primary residence.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the father refused to give their two daughters back to the mother after his holiday visitation.  He alleged it was unsafe for the girls to go back to the mother’s home with the son because the son had assaulted one of the daughters.

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A parent seeking modification of a Texas conservatorship order must show by a preponderance of the evidence that there has been a material and substantial change in circumstances and that the modification would be in the child’s best interest. A Texas appeals court recently held that the parent must meet this burden even if the other party defaults.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the child was born in October 2019.  The trial court signed an agreed order in February 2020 establishing paternity, naming both parents joint managing conservators, and awarding the mother the right to designate the child’s primary residence  as well as other exclusive rights.  The father had a modified possession schedule that started with supervised visitation and transitioned to unsupervised possession, and then a standard possession order after a specified number of visits.

Modification Proceeding

The father petitioned for modification, seeking a standard possession order without supervision.  The mother did not appear at the hearings, and the court granted the requested order.

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Fit parents have a fundamental right to make decisions regarding child rearing pursuant to Troxel v. Granville.  A non-parent requesting possession or access must establish that they have standing pursuant to the Texas Family Code or the court must dismiss their suit.  Pursuant to Tex. Fam. Code 153.432, a grandparent seeking possession or access must attach an affidavit alleging that denial of possession or access to the child would significantly impair the physical health or emotional well-being of the child.  This allegation and supporting facts are required for the grandparent to show they have standing.

Grandmother’s Petition

A grandmother recently appealed a trial court’s dismissal of her petition for possession or access to her grandchild.  The paternal grandmother had filed suit for possession or access to her deceased son’s child. Because there was no testimony at trial, the appeals court recited the facts as alleged in the grandmother’s petition and affidavit.   The child was born in April of 2020.  Although the child lived with her mother at the time of the appeal, the grandmother alleged the child lived with her for the first seven months after she was born.

In her affidavit, the grandmother alleged the mother was an “unfit parent.”  She stated one of the mother’s friends had molested the mother’s older daughter.  She also stated in the affidavit that the mother left the child with her when the child was two weeks old, but later claimed the grandmother had kidnapped the child.  The grandmother stated she returned the child to avoid prosecution.  The grandmother claimed the mother had been unable to provide for her older child before her younger child was born and that the mother had been physically and mentally abusive to the older child.  The grandmother also stated that the mother was not able to make a “significant contribution” to the child’s upbringing.  The grandmother averred that the mother had once given the child “spoiled formula” and that she was not “properly bathed” at times.  The grandmother also claimed she was better able to take care of the child financially.

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A trial court may vacate, modify, correct or reform its judgment or grant a new trial within 30 days after the judgment is signed.  Tex. R. Civ. P. 329b.  Additionally, if a party files a timely motion, the trial court has the power to take those same actions until 30 days after any timely motions are overruled by an order or operation of law.  The court’s plenary power generally expires 30 days after the final judgment is filed if there is not a timely post-judgment motion.

Courts generally retain continuing subject-matter jurisdiction to clarify and enforce the property division set forth in a Texas divorce decree.  The court has the authority to render additional orders to enforce, assist in the implementation of, or clarify the property division.  It may specify the manner of the property division more precisely, but may not change the substantive property division.  A court may order delivery of specific property through its enforcement power.  If a party has not delivered property awarded pursuant to the divorce decree and delivery is not an adequate remedy, the court may award damages. Additionally, a court may render judgment against a party who fails to make monetary payments as awarded in a decree.

A former husband recently challenged a court order purportedly enforcing the property division in his divorce decree, arguing that it instead improperly modified the division.

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A court must order a just and right division of the marital estate in a Texas divorce.  Once the divorce is final and the property has been divided, the property division generally may not be re-litigated.  The trial court does, however, retain the power to clarify and enforce the division.  Tex. Fam. Code § 9.002; Tex. Fam. Code § 9.008. The court may not alter or change the substantive property division, but may render additional orders to enforce, clarify, assist in implementing, or specify the manner of effecting the property division. Tex. Fam. Code § 9.006.  A former husband recently challenged a trial court’s partial denial of his request for clarification and enforcement.

According to the opinion of the appeals court, the final divorce decree awarded the husband certain personal property, specifically including the outdoor furniture purchased from a particular person and any property the wife had removed from the homestead, including certain dining room furniture and two bronze statues.

Clarification and Enforcement Hearing

The husband petitioned for clarification and enforcement of the property division, alleging the wife had not turned over certain property awarded to him, including two bronze statues, certain patio furniture he had purchased from a specified individual, and certain dining room furniture.  He asked the court to order her to turn them over by a specified date, and to award him their replacement value if she did not.

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When a person seeks divorce from an informal marriage, they often must prove the informal marriage existed.  To prove a Texas informal marriage, the party must show by the preponderance of the evidence that the couple agreed to be married, subsequently lived together in Texas as spouses, and held themselves out to others as married.  Tex. Fam. Code § 2.401. A man recently appealed summary judgment in his divorce case on the ground he had not raised an issue of fact as to the existence of an informal marriage.

Divorce Case

The petitioner filed for divorce in November 2021, alleging the parties had been married on or about March 18, 2002.

In her answer, the respondent asserted a verified defense that they parties were not married. She filed a motion for summary judgment, attaching tax returns, deeds, and other exhibits that she argued showed the parties had not represented themselves as married “to the general public or others.” She also averred that the petitioner had never presented her as his wife to his children, that his children had not socialized with her or her family because they knew she was not the petitioner’s wife, and that he lived with another woman.

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A court may retroactively modify a Texas child support order in some circumstances, but it generally may only do so as to child support obligations that accrue after the earlier of the date of service of citation or an appearance in the modification suit.  Tex. Fam. Code 156.401.  A father recently challenged a modification terminating his child support obligation, arguing it should have applied retroactively to the date of his son’s eighteenth birthday.

When the son was fourteen, he enrolled in the American School, which is a private, distance-learning school.  Students complete their course by correspondence and computer-based work.  Students take two courses at a time and must complete a course before being provided another.  Courses earn one-half to one unit, and students must earn eighteen units to graduate high school.

The son’s brother sadly died in April 2017.  The mother moved out of the marital home in June and the parents filed for divorce in July.  The son remained in the home with his father.  With all of this going on, the son fell behind and performed no work for his courses for a period of nine to ten months.

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