Threats of Criminal Prosecution Can Constitute Duress in Texas Divorce Case

Divorce is usually fraught with emotion, but in some cases, a party may be pressured to the point of duress.  Duress exists when there have been threats that prevent a person from exercising their own free will.  Although it is not duress when a person threatens something they have a legal right to do, duress may exist if they exhort or make improper demands of another person.  An agreement signed under duress may be void.  In a recent Texas divorce case, a husband alleged he was under duress when he signed the marital home over to the wife.

The parties married in 1994.  During the marriage, they purchased the home.  They separated in March 2017.  They agreed the wife would take the home and the husband would not have to pay child support, but they never memorialized the agreement.  The husband testified he changed his mind after finding out his wife was unfaithful.

The husband moved out in March 2017.  The wife also filed her divorce petition that month.  She testified that the husband came to the house in April, kicked in the door, and threatened to kill her, her boyfriend, and her grandmother.  She reported the incident to the police.

The husband testified he came to the house after his daughter called and told him a man was at the house.  He said he stayed outside and yelled about the boyfriend, but denied threatening the wife or her grandmother.  He also denied trying to get in the house.

The husband testified the wife said he had to give her the house and sign an affidavit so she would drop the criminal charges.  He signed the quitclaim deed and an affidavit accepting fault for the divorce the day before his hearing was scheduled. The affidavit also stated that the wife “has done nothing wrong” and that the husband believed “she has never been unfaithful…”

The husband testified he did not have money for the bond.  He said he only signed the documents out of desperation.  The wife testified she contacted the prosecutor to drop the charges because she did not think the husband would kill them.  There were text messages, however, showing the wife said she would ask her boyfriend to drop the charges if the husband signed the quitclaim deed and affidavit.  Text messages also indicated she called the prosecutor’s office the day the quitclaim deed was signed.  The charges were dismissed at the end of May.

The trial court found the husband signed the documents under duress and divided the proceeds from the sale of the house equally.  The trial court also found the wife was not credible.

The wife appealed, arguing there was insufficient evidence to support a finding the deed was signed under duress.

The appeals court noted that the majority view in Texas is that threatening criminal prosecution to get a person to sign a contract may be duress, even if the person actually committed the offense.

The wife argued the threat came from a third party because the charges had already been filed.  The appeals court distinguished this case from those cited by the wife.  The court noted that the events in this case all occurred in a matter of days.  The husband did not get any money in exchange for signing over the house.  The appeals court found that the fact the charges had already been found before the demands were made did not preclude the defense of duress.  The appeals court found the wife’s actions were an improper use of the criminal justice process.

The wife argued she had “legal justification” because she was allowed to pursue criminal charges if her husband did something illegal.  The appeals court pointed out that the party’s guilt did not preclude a duress defense.

The wife also argued the evidence was legally and factually insufficient to support a finding of duress.  The appeals court noted that there was evidence the wife had texted her husband a list of demands and indicated she would dismiss the charges if he agreed to them.  Those demands were not related to the charges.  She contacted the district attorney the same day the husband signed the documents.

The wife drafted the affidavit, and she received the benefits of the deed and the affidavit.  She sent the text the day before the husband’s court appearance.  The husband testified he was afraid because he did not have the money for the bond.  He also said he only signed the documents because he was afraid of going to jail.  He also testified he had changed his mind about giving the wife the house in exchange for a release from child support before signing anything.

The appeals court found that the wife failed to show there was not any evidence supporting the duress finding.  The appeals court also rejected her argument that the home was her separate property, because it was based upon the quitclaim deed, which was voided due to duress.

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

In an ugly separation with high emotions, it is especially important to have the advice and guidance of a skilled Texas divorce attorney.  McClure Law Group can help you through the entire process.  Call us at 214.692.8200.

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