Texas Appeals Court Reverses Spousal Maintenance Award Due to Lack of Evidence of Expenses

A Texas divorce case can become more complicated for spouses with a child with complex medical needs.  In addition to addressing issues related to custody and decision-making, the divorce may also have to address spousal maintenance for the child’s primary caregiver.  In a recent case, a husband appealed an unequal property division and a spousal maintenance award in favor of the wife, who acted as primary caregiver for the children.

According to the appeals court’s opinion, the parties had preterm triplets, one of whom was a “medically fragile child,” “Andy.”  The wife stopped working outside the home and became their primary caregiver.

The husband filed for divorce in 2019.  The wife subsequently negotiated a job with the non-profit she co-founded.

The husband proposed a 50/50 division of the marital property and the wife proposed a 58/42 division.

The trial court awarded the wife a larger share of the community estate.  In addition to child support, it also awarded her $2,000 in month spousal maintenance for 36 months.  The husband appealed the property division and the spousal maintenance award.

Disproportionate Property Division

A trial court must divide the marital estate in a “just and right” manner, considering the rights of the parties and their children.  Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 7.001.  The division must be equitable but not necessarily equal.  The court may consider relevant factors, including disparity in incomes or earning capacity, education, the parties’ physical conditions, financial circumstances, ages, the value of the separate estates, and the nature of the property.  A court may divide the property disproportionately with a reasonable basis to do so.

Although the husband calculated the property division to be 80/20 in favor of the wife, she calculated it as 57/43.  Based on the trial court’s valuations in the decree, findings of fact, and the agreed values in the parties’ proposed divisions, the appeals court calculated the split was 54/46 in favor of the wife.

The appeals court also identified several factors supporting a disproportionate division: educational disparity; the wife being out of the workforce to care for the children; income disparity; the wife acting as primary caregiver for the children; and her assumption of the mortgage.

A party challenging a property division must show the division was so unjust as to be an abuse of discretion.  The appeals court concluded the husband failed to show the slight difference in favor of the wife reached that level.

Spousal Maintenance

The husband also argued there was insufficient evidence supporting the spousal maintenance award.

A trial court may order spousal maintenance to a spouse who lacks sufficient property to provide for their reasonable needs and either: is unable to earn sufficient income to provide for their own minimum reasonable needs; has been married for at least 10 years and lacks the ability to earn sufficient income to provide for their minimum reasonable needs; or is the custodian of the parties’ child who needs substantial care and supervision due to a disability that prevents the spouse from earning sufficient income for their own minimum reasonable needs.  Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 8.051.

Only the subsections related to a marriage lasting at least 10 years and to the custodian of a child with a disability were at issue in this case.

The trial court made numerous findings regarding Andy being a “medically fragile child” and needing substantial care and supervision from the wife.  It also found the wife was employed with an annual salary of $30,000.  The court also concluded she was eligible for maintenance pursuant to Chapter 8 of the Texas Family Code.

The husband argued there was no evidence supporting the conclusion the wife was eligible for maintenance under Chapter 8.  Although he requested additional findings and conclusion, the trial court did not make additional findings or conclusions.

A party may request specified additional or amended findings or conclusions within 10 days of the filing of original findings and conclusions.  Tex. R. Civ. P. 298. The trial court does not have to provide additional findings if the original findings and conclusions succinctly and properly convey the ultimate findings and conclusions necessary for the party to present an appeal.

The appeals court noted the ultimate issue was whether the wife met the requirements to be eligible for maintenance under Chapter 8. The trial court had made findings and conclusions regarding characterization and value of the property, the wife’s salary, and her eligibility for maintenance.  The parties had agreed she was only potentially eligible under the subsections relating to 10-year marriages or custodians of children with disabilities.    The appeals court concluded the original findings and conclusions were sufficient to allow the husband to present his appeal.

The husband argued there was insufficient evidence to show that the wife lacked sufficient property to meet her minimum reasonable needs, to rebut the presumption against spousal maintenance, and to prove she was unable to earn sufficient income to provide for her minimum reasonable needs because of the care Andy required.

The wife did not testify about her monthly expenses or provided an itemized list. There was, however, evidence the monthly mortgage payment was around $2,032 and that property taxes were expected to be about $756 per month.  There was no evidence of her other monthly expenses. Without such evidence, her minimum reasonable needs were $2,788 per month.

The husband argued her salary and the property she received in the divorce were sufficient for her minimum reasonable needs.  In determining if property is sufficient, the court may consider the spouse’s income, separate property value, the value and liquidity of the property received in the property division, and the amount of child support payments.  A spouse is not required to incur new debt or liquidate their assets to meet their short-term needs.

The appeals court determined the wife received about $13,515 in liquid assets, which would be about $375 per month over the period of the 36-month spousal maintenance award.  Added to the monthly child support and her salary, she would have a total of $5,635 in total monthly income, clearly exceeding the monthly expenses supported by evidence.  The appeals court there was insufficient evidence supporting the trial court’s implied finding the wife lacked sufficient property to provide for her reasonable minimum needs.  The trial court abused its discretion in awarding maintenance.

The appeals court reversed the maintenance award and affirmed the rest of the decree.

Call a Skilled Texas Divorce Attorney

In this case, the appeals court acknowledged that the wife had other expenses, but could only calculate the need for spousal maintenance based on the evidence before the trial court.  This case shows the importance of presenting the evidence needed to support claims for a disproportionate property division and spousal maintenance.  If you are facing divorce and are the caregiver for a child with complex medical needs, an experienced Texas divorce attorney can help.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200 to discuss your case.

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