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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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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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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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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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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A party to a Texas divorce is entitled to reimbursement to the marital estate when community time, labor, or skills are used to benefit the other party’s separate estate beyond what is needed for maintenance of the separate property.  The trial court has broad discretion to apply equitable principles.  A former wife recently challenged a divorce decree that granted her former husband’s requests for reimbursement and reconstitution of the community estate.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the husband requested a disproportionate share of the community property and reimbursement to both the community estate and his separate estate.  He argued the wife’s separate estate had benefited from both the community and his separate estate.  He also alleged the wife conspired with her daughter “to accomplish an unlawful purpose and/or to accomplish a lawful purpose by unlawful means” to dispose of the proceeds from the sale of a house. He sought actual and exemplary damages as well as attorney’s fees.

The wife also requested a disproportionate share of the community estate. She argued the civil conspiracy claim was barred by both the statute of limitations and the statute of frauds.  She also argued that the parties freely granted their interest in the property to her daughter and that the husband had agreed to and ratified her actions.

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A court may render orders to enforce or clarify the property division in a Texas divorce decree, but generally may not render an order that makes substantive changes to the property division once it is final.  A former husband recently challenged a clarification order, arguing it improperly modified the decree.

Divorce Decree

According to the appeals court, the parties were married for more than 15 years when they got divorced in 2018.  The agreed divorce decree referenced a “privately held compan[y]” that employed them both.  The decree awarded all ownership interest in the company to the husband as separate property. It also awarded him the intellectual property he created used in connection with that ownership and the cash in two bank accounts in the company’s name beginning November 1, 2018.

Those bank accounts had been included in a list in the decree for which the husband would have the “sole right to withdraw funds” or “subject to [his] sole control[.]”

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The Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”), codified in Chapter 152 of the Texas Family Code addresses how to determine jurisdiction in custody matters involving more than one state.  Generally, a Texas trial court that made a custody determination consistent with § 152.201 or 152.203 retains continuing jurisdiction until a court makes certain determinations regarding a lack of significant connection to the state or residence.  Tex. Fam. Code § 152.202.

In a recent case, a mother appealed following a modification, arguing the trial court had not acquired custody jurisdiction in the original divorce case because Colorado had subject-matter jurisdiction over the children pursuant to the UCCJEA.

Procedural History

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the trial court entered an agreed final divorce decree in 2017 that named the parents joint managing conservators of their two children.  The mother was awarded the exclusive right to designate the children’s primary residence until they turned twelve, with no geographic limitations.

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Spouses have a fiduciary duty toward each other with regard to the community estate and commit fraud on the community if they breach a legal or equitable duty in violation of the fiduciary relationship.  Fraud on the community often occurs when assets are transferred to a third party, but can also occur when it is unaccounted for.

If a court determines a spouse committed fraud, it must determine the amount the community estate was depleted and the total value it would have had absent the fraud.  The trial court then divides the reconstituted estate in a just and right manner, which may include awarding the other spouse a disproportionate share of the community estate, a money judgment, or both.  Tex. Fam. Code § 7.009.  A husband recently appealed the trial court’s finding of fraud, judgments, and property division in his Texas divorce.

The Marriage

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the husband owned a home when the parties married in 2002.

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If the parties in a Texas custody case reach a Mediated Settlement Agreement (“MSA”), the court must enter judgment on the MSA.  The MSA is binding if it meets the three requirements set out in Tex. Fam. Code § 153.0071(d).  First, it must prominently state that it is not subject to revocation. It must also be signed by the parties.  Finally, it must also be signed by any party’s attorney who is present at execution.  The court may, however, decline to enter judgment on an MSA if it finds that a party was the victim of family violence which impaired their ability to make decisions and that the agreement is not in the best interest of the child.  Tex. Fam. Code § 153.0071(e-1). Unless this exception applies, the trial court generally does not have the discretion to deviate from the MSA and a party is entitled to judgment on the MSA.  A court’s order may include terms that are necessary to implement the MSA, but it may not substantially alter the MSA. A father recently challenged a divorce decree that did not compart with the parties’ MSA with regards to where exchanges were to occur.

Mediated Settlement Agreement

The parents had two children together during their marriage. They separated in 2020 and signed an MSA in October 2021.  Pursuant to the MSA, the parents would be joint managing conservators and the mother would have the right to determine the children’s primary residence.  The MSA further gave the father a standard possession order which would be an expanded standard possession order if he lived within 50 miles of the children.  It also provided that the exchange location would be at a particular McDonald’s in Huntsville with a pickup time of 8 p.m. and a drop-off time of 5 p.m. as long as the father and children lived in the current locations, with provisions for changing the location if the parents lived in the same county.

At the hearing, the mother’ attorney claimed that the MSA was intended to state that the parties would only meet in Huntsville once a month instead of for all the exchanges. The father’s attorney argued, however, that the provision stated what the father wanted with regard to exchanges.

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