On behalf of Megan Rachel
In Everett v. Everett, the Court of Appeals of Texas, El Paso, reversed an order by the trial court which clarified the parties’ divorce decree by increasing the ex-husband’s spousal maintenance payments to the ex-wife. The appellate court stated that the order was not permitted under Texas procedures for clarifying orders pertaining to debt division of marital estates and modification of spousal maintenance awards.
Background and procedural history
The parties were divorced in 2010. Under the terms of the divorce decree, the ex-wife was awarded the marital residence in Trophy Club, Texas, but required to obtain financing to purchase the property within one year after the date of the decree. If financing was not obtained by the stated deadline, the decree provided that the property would be listed for sale.
The ex-husband was ordered to pay the ad valorem taxes on the property for 36 months, but the decree provided that this obligation would cease if during this period the ex-wife either remarried or resided with another man. The ex-husband was also ordered to pay spousal maintenance to the ex-wife for 36 months.
After the one-year deadline expired, the ex-husband brought a petition to enforce the sale of the residence, alleging that the ex-wife had not secured financing for the home. After a hearing, the trial court ordered the house sold, and, if sold within 36 months after the date of the divorce decree, the ex-husband was ordered to continue making monthly payments in an amount equal to one-twelfth of the total annual property taxes due on the property as a form of additional spousal support. The tax payments would only terminate sooner only if the ex-wife either remarried or cohabitated with another man.
The ex-husband filed an appeal in the Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals ruling
The ex-husband raised two issues on appeal. First, he argued that the trial court’s clarifying order increasing his spousal maintenance payments upon the sale of the property was an abuse of discretion. The Court of Appeals agreed. The Court of Appeals stated that under Texas law a trial court cannot subsequently amend a previous division of the marital estate after it has been approved in a divorce decree. If the original property division order was ambiguous, the trial court may subsequently issue a clarifying order, but only if the order lacks sufficient specificity to be capable of enforcement in contempt proceedings.
The Court of Appeals ruled that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to convert a debt obligation-property tax payments-into spousal maintenance. The trial court’s order improperly went beyond clarification, the appellate court said, by altering the substantive division of property.
The Court of Appeals also agreed with the ex-husband’s contention that the trial court abused its discretion by modifying the amount of his spousal maintenance obligation without providing notice to either party prior to the hearing that the issue of modification of spousal maintenance was being considered by the court.
Individuals facing issues relating divorce and other domestic relations matters are urged to consult with a competent attorney, experienced in such matters for the protection of their legal rights.