Texas Divorce Decree Must Generally Comply with Mediated Settlement Agreement

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.

The trial court concluded there was not a meeting of the minds regarding the exchanges and ruled the mother would only have to go to Huntsville for exchanges once a month.  The father was responsible for transporting the children for the other exchanges.

The final divorce decree incorporated a standard possession order and the court’s oral ruling that the father would designate which weekend they would meet in Huntsville by giving the mother notice by the 15th of the previous month.  It further stated that the father would pick up and return the children at the mother’s residence on the other weekends.

Decree Deviates from MSA

The father appealed, arguing the court erred by entering an order that varied from the terms of the parties’ MSA.

The appeals court concluded the parties’ MSA complied with Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 153.0071(d) and was therefore binding on both parties.  The mother had not argued that the family violence exception applied. The appeals court concluded the father was entitled to a judgment fully incorporating the terms of the MSA.

The final divorce decree had changed the terms of the MSA regarding the location of exchanges. A court applies the general rules of contract interpretation when interpreting a MSA.  The plain language of the MSA provided that as long as the parties and children lived where they currently did “exchanges will occur at the McDonald’s restaurant. . . in Huntsville, Texas.” The final decree, however, stated the parties would meet in Huntsville only once a month and required the father to pick up and drop off the children at the mother’s residence “on the other weekends.”  The appeals court concluded the trial court had abused its discretion by impermissibly deviating from the terms of the MSA.

The appeals court reversed the decree and remanded to the trial court to enter an order according to its opinion.

Seek Experienced Dallas Legal Representation

As this case shows, a trial court generally cannot deviate from a mediated settlement agreement.  It is therefore important that the parties understand and actually agree to the terms in the agreement. A skilled Texas divorce attorney can help you ensure that any agreement actually reflects the agreed-upon terms.  Set up a consultation with McClure Law Group to discuss your case by calling 214.692.8200.

Contact Information