Texas Appeals Court Upholds Spousal Maintenance and Reimbursement

iStock-531351317-300x200Texas spousal maintenance is intended to provide “temporary and rehabilitative” support for a spouse who does not have the ability or assets to support themselves or whose ability to do so has deteriorated while they were engaged in homemaking activities.  Courts may award spousal maintenance only in limited circumstances if the parties meet the requirements under the Texas Family Code.

Tex. Fam. Code § 8.053 provides there is a rebuttable presumption that maintenance is not warranted pursuant to Section 8.051(2)(B) unless the spouse exercised diligence in earning sufficient income to provide for their reasonable needs, or in developing the necessary skills to provide for their reasonable needs during separation and while the divorce case is pending.  Even if a spouse otherwise qualifies under Section 8.051(2)(B), they must either show that they exercised diligence or rebut the presumption that maintenance is not warranted.

A husband recently challenged a spousal maintenance award in favor of the wife and an order to pay a reimbursement claim to the community estate based on improvements made to his separate property.

The husband was a partner in a law firm when the parties divorced.  The wife primarily cared for the children and did not work outside the home during the marriage.  She was also a lawyer, but not licensed in Texas.  The husband purchased the family home prior to the marriage and controlled the finances.

The trial court found the wife should get a disproportionate division of the community estate and ordered the husband to pay her $2,500 in monthly spousal maintenance for four years.  The husband appealed.  The trial court also found the community estate was entitled to $137,641 as reimbursement for improvements made to the home from community funds.

The husband argued the trial court erred in awarding spousal maintenance.

Spousal Maintenance

The wife sought maintenance pursuant to Tex. Fam. Code 8.051(2)(B), which allows a court to order maintenance if the parties were married at least 10 years and the spouse seeking maintenance lacks sufficient property to provide for their own minimum reasonable needs and lacks the ability to earn sufficient income to do so.

The parties were married more than 10 years.  There was also sufficient evidence to support a finding the wife did not have the ability to earn sufficient income.  The husband did not challenge that finding on appeal.  He instead argued that the wife had to rebut the presumption that maintenance was not warranted by providing sufficient evidence she had exercised diligence in earning sufficient income or developing the skills to do so during the separation and divorce proceedings.

The appeals court first considered whether the wife showed she exercised diligence in earning sufficient income.  The court noted this inquiry is not limited to the time when the parties are separated and the divorce is pending.  The wife testified she took courses toward a real estate license in North Carolina, where she grew up and her parents still lived.  Getting her license in North Carolina would reduce the number of courses she would need to get licensed in Texas.  She also testified she reactivated her law license in the District of Columbia.  She said she had met with a career counselor, worked on her resume, and looked into educational opportunities.  The appeals court concluded there was sufficient evidence to support a finding she exercised diligence in earning sufficient income.

The appeals court also noted that even without sufficient evidence of diligence, there would just be a rebuttable presumption that maintenance was not warranted.

The wife testified she had stayed home to care for the children during the marriage.  There was evidence her doing so had helped the husband pursue his career.  She had not worked for over 10 years when the parties divorced.  She testified she did not currently have the qualifications needed to either practice law in Texas or work as a real estate agent.  She testified she did not have sufficient assets to buy a house or pay rent for an appropriate home.  The appeals court concluded the trial court could have determined her absence from the workforce while caring for the children, inability to obtain sufficient employment without getting additional education or certifications, and her inability to provide for her reasonable minimum needs rebutted the presumption against maintenance.  The appeals court found no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s award of spousal maintenance.

Reimbursement Claim

The husband also challenged the trial court’s finding that the community estate had a right of reimbursement for improvements made to the home.  He argued there was no evidence of the value the improvements added to the property.

Pursuant to Tex. Fam. Code 3.402, a trial court may order reimbursement for capital improvements based on equitable principles.  The trial court has broad discretion in evaluating a reimbursement claim.  An estate is entitled to reimbursement when its funds are used to benefit another estate and it does not receive any benefit.  A spouse seeking reimbursement must show that one marital estate contributed to another and that contribution was reimbursable.  They must also show the value of the contribution.  Vallone v. Vallone. A reimbursement claim based on improvements is calculated based on the enhanced value to the other estate, shown through evidence of the fair market value of the improved property at the time of the divorce as compared to the fair market value it would have had at the same time without the improvements

The husband argued the wife failed to establish the value of the contribution.  An assessor testified he reviewed three appraisals.  Based on the appraisals, he testified the enhancement value ranged between $59,450 to $150,700.  He calculated this range by dividing the lowest and highest appraisals by the total square footage, then multiplying that number by the added square footage.  The appraisals did not value the land and house separately. He testified the real estate industry generally considers the entire property and does not delineate the improvement’s value versus the lot’s.

The trial court found the husband’s separate property was enhanced by $137,641 by the community, which was within the range identified by the assessor.  The appeals court concluded there was sufficient evidence to support the finding.

The husband argued the evidence was not sufficient to support the finding without evidence of the property’s value just before the improvement was made.  The appeals court noted, however, that the enhancement value is measured by the difference in value with and without the improvement at the time of the divorce.  The assessor opined how much less the home would be worth without the improvements.

The husband also argued the assessor’s methodology was incorrect because he did not separately value the land and structure.  He provided no legal support showing that this methodology was required.  The appeals court also noted the husband had not offered his own evidence of the enhancement value using his proposed methodology.  The assessor testified he had done over one hundred valuations for reimbursement claims and the methodology he used was the method typically used by appraisers.  The appeals court concluded the trial court’s finding was within its discretion.

The appeals court affirmed the decree.

Call McClure Law Group

When a spouse takes time out of the workforce to take care of the children and household, their earning capacity may suffer and they may need spousal maintenance to help them get back on their feet. If you are anticipating divorce after years out of the workforce, a knowledgeable Texas divorce attorney can advise you on your rights and options.  Schedule a consultation with McClure Law Group by calling 214.692.8200.

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