Texas Court Finds Spousal Maintenance Can’t Be Terminated through Collateral Attack

Chapter 8 of the Texas Family Code sets forth the circumstances under which a court in a Texas divorce case may order spousal maintenance.  Pursuant to section 8.051, the court may order maintenance if the spouse requesting it lacks sufficient property to provide for his or her minimum needs and meets one of the other enumerated conditions, related to family violence, disability, marriage lasting at least 10 years,  or a disabled child.  If a party disagrees with a maintenance obligation, it is best to challenge it immediately.  A Texas appeals court recently considered whether a trial court appropriately terminated a maintenance obligation the husband challenged in response to the wife’s enforcement petition rather than through a direct appeal.

According to the appeals court opinion, the couple divorced in 2014 and stipulated in an agreed divorce decree that the wife was eligible for maintenance under chapter 8 of the Family Code.  The trial court ordered the husband to pay spousal maintenance until either party’s death, the wife’s remarriage, or further orders of the court.  The husband was to provide his payroll statement to the wife on request.

Nearly three years later, the wife petitioned for enforcement of the maintenance.  She argued the husband had refused to provide his payroll statement. She asked the court to enter a clarifying order if it found any part of the decree to be insufficiently specific to be enforced.

The husband argued the order was insufficiently specific to meet the statutory requirements.  He argued the marriage had not lasted more than 10 years and there was no finding of domestic violence or disability. The wife argued the maintenance provisions were at most voidable, and were therefore not subject to collateral attack.

The husband testified that the parties had been married less than 10 years.  He further testified the decree did not include an end-date for the maintenance.  He acknowledged the wife had been granted Social Security disability benefits before the divorce.  He testified he had paid over $43,000 in maintenance and asked the court to terminate the obligation.

The wife testified she had brain surgery in 2007 and had memory and communication problems thereafter.  She testified she could not work due to her memory issues and seizures.

The trial court terminated the maintenance obligation, stating the law required a specific finding of disability.  The order stated the obligation was not enforceable and terminated it because the decree did not include the duration of the obligation and it did not include a finding that established the wife’s eligibility for spousal maintenance. The wife appealed, arguing the court erred in modifying the agreement without appropriate grounds.

The husband had argued to the trial court that the obligation was unenforceable because it was ambiguous as to duration and that the wife was not eligible for maintenance because the trial court had not made an eligibility finding in the decree.  The trial court ordered termination of the maintenance based on these arguments.  The wife argued that these arguments should have been raised in a direct appeal from the decree and could not be raised as a collateral attack in a subsequent suit.

The appeals court noted that jurisdictional errors can render a judgment void and subject to collateral attack, but non-jurisdictional errors instead render the judgment voidable and may only be corrected on direct appeal.  The alleged errors here were non-jurisdictional.  When the decree is not appealed, it is not subject to collateral attack in a later suit.  A final divorce decree is subject to res judicata, which bars a subsequent collateral attack.  The appeals court reversed the order terminating the obligation and remanded for further proceedings related to the wife’s petition for enforcement.

This case shows the importance of following proper procedures in a divorce case.  The trial court accepted the husband’s arguments that the order did not meet the requirements, but because he did not raise the issue on direct appeal but instead waited until the wife tried to enforce the order, the appeals court reversed the termination.

If you are facing divorce, an experienced Texas divorce attorney can help you through the difficult and complex process.  Call McClure Law Group at 214.692.8200 to set up a meeting to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

Diligence and Spousal Maintenance in Texas Divorces

Factors for Spousal Maintenance Award in Texas

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