In Ochsner v. Ochsner, the Texas Supreme Court ruled on a child support order that required the father to pay for his daughter’s school and to pay through a registry when she changed schools.
The couple had divorced in 2001, and the divorce decree included a child support order. The father was to pay the mother $240 each month in two installments and would also pay the daughter’s preschool directly. After the daughter stopped going to that preschool, the father was to pay the mother $400 in two installments and also pay a registry the school tuition payments. The order stated that his failure to comply could result in his not getting credit for making the payment.
The daughter stopped going to the preschool, and the father kept making the $240 per month payments to the mother. Instead of paying the registry, the father paid the new school directly, making payments that were $20,000 more than what was required by the original order. The mother was contractually obligated to pay the tuition.
Ten years after her daughter stopped going to preschool, the mother sued the father in a child support enforcement action, arguing he was in arrears. She asked for a money judgment for the balance, as well as interest, fees, and costs. The trial court determined the father discharged his obligation. The court of appeals reversed and sent the case back. The trial court again found that the father owed no arrearage. The court of appeals reversed, finding that the trial court should not have enforced a private agreement to modify the earlier child support order, and it couldn’t consider the direct tuition payments in determining the amount that was in arrears.
The Texas Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. It disagreed with the intermediate court’s ruling that a trial court in an enforcement action can consider evidence of direct payments like those made by the father. It explained that Family Code section 157.263(b-1) provides that a court cannot reduce or modify the amount of arrearages but can allow an offset or counterclaim. Under section 157.263, when a money judgment for child support arrearages is requested, the court must confirm the amount in arrears and issue a cumulative money judgment that includes unpaid support, the amount owed on previously confirmed arrearages, interest, and a statement that it was a cumulative judgment. An arrearage exists when someone is behind in paying off a debt or discharging an obligation.
The Court explained that the trial court had to confirm the amount of the arrearages, or the value that remained unpaid. The mother argued that there was an impermissible reduction or modification of the earlier order. The Court ruled that the trial court was permitted to consider tuition payments that were made in a way that was not specified in the order. It reasoned that in a child support enforcement action, a trial court can consider all the payments, regardless of whether they were made precisely according to the order of the earlier court.
The Court rendered judgment for the father and reversed the court of appeals’ judgment.
If your divorce involves matters related to child support, contact the Texas attorneys at the McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200.
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