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Can the court change or modify a mediated settlement agreement in a family case?

When you seek to modify a mediated settlement agreement that is an original determination of parent-child relationship matters, does a trial court have to enter an order that meets the terms of the mediated agreement? The Dallas Court of Appeals considered this issue in a recent decision and found that because modification suits apply a different set of rules than the rules that apply to original agreements about the child-parent relationship, a modification of child support suit may result in a ruling that does not comply with the terms of the agreement produced by mediation between the parties.

A mediated settlement agreement reflects the agreement of the parties about the child-parent relationship, including matters like child support, possession, and conservatorship. Child custody is called conservatorship in Texas. Texas courts and laws put a heavy emphasis on mediation and encourage alternative dispute resolution in a lot of situations. Mediation is supposed to encourage problem-solving and cooperation as well as reduce the financial burden on families and the court system. Many courts actually require mediation before allowing litigation to begin. Because of this emphasis, courts are likely to respect mediated settlement agreements unless a compelling reason exists that indicates that the court should ignore the agreement. Sometimes, statutes provide that required compelling reason.

In this recent case, the parties’ mediated settlement agreement was the original determination of conservatorship, possession, and access to the children. An original determination arises under § 153 of the Texas Family Code. As long as the mediated agreement met the rules of § 153, the court would enforce the agreement as written if a suit was brought seeking enforcement of the agreement. However, one of the parties sought a modification of child support suit. This type of suit is brought under § 156 of the Texas Family Code. This section requires different policy concerns than § 153, namely the need for stability for the child and the necessity of preventing constant litigation in family law cases. Because the policy concerns are different, the law has a different standard the court must use when applying the law. The Texas Family Code’s § 156 legal burden requires the court to determine if there has been a “material and substantial change” in the circumstances of the parties as well as to consider whether the requested modification is in the best interests of the child. So, when there is both a “material and substantial change” in circumstances and the modification sought is in the best interests of the child, the court only has to consider these facts and is not bound to enter an order that strictly complies with the mediated settlement agreement.

If you have a mediated settlement agreement that originally determined conservatorship, possession, and access to your children, you should be aware that a suit seeking modification might result in an outcome that does not match your original agreement. Consult with your attorney and carefully consider whether the need for modification is important enough to risk a result that could be extremely different from your original agreement.