Texas’ Recognition of an Out-of-State Divorce Decree: A Look into the Court of Appeals’ Approach

Chapter 8 of the Texas Family Code governs spousal maintenance, Texas’ own form of “alimony”.   Spousal maintenance is not easily obtained by divorcing parties; in fact, the legislature has created a pretty high threshold.  But, the issue becomes what if you have an out of state decree that speaks to spousal support and then you have the spouse ordered to pay subsequently wanting to get out of that arrangement?  This is the exact issue that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals addressed in In the Interest of L.T.H., R.R.H., and A.W.H., Minor Children.

In that case, the wife appealed a trial court’s ruling to refuse to enforce a California divorce decree modification and the husband’s obligation to pay spousal support.   In California, husband and wife were divorced, subsequently modified the divorce decree in California with a settlement agreement, and entered a reformed decree.  Then, everyone subsequently moved to Texas.  Later, the wife sought to enforce against the husband several times due to his nonpayment of the spousal support and child support.  After the first enforcement, the parties signed a mediated settlement agreement agreeing to certain terms regarding the spousal support (payment was definitely one of those terms) and then an order was subsequently entered.   The wife had to seek a subsequent enforcement due to the husband not paying again pursuant to the orders and in that case, the trial court ordered that they could not enforce the modification of the California decree and ordered that wife take-nothing.  However, the Court of Appeals thought differently and reversed and remanded ruling that they would strictly comply with the parties’ MSA, uphold the MSA and the parties’ agreement.

The Court of Appeals reviewed this case under contract law, which is sometimes unusual when discussing family law cases.  However, most people forget that every agreement entered into (when the proper elements are present), create a contract between the parties that can be enforceable as such.  The Court of Appeals looked to previous appellate decisions to reach this decision such as Schwartz v. Schwartz which held that “When such an agreement is executed by the parties and incorporated into the judgment of a divorce, it is binding upon the parties, and is interpreted under general contract law.”  Schwartz v. Schwartz, 247 S.W.3d 804, 806 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.).   Therefore, the Court would not review the MSA under Chapter 8 of the Texas Family Code stating that this was a contract turned into a court order which did not effectively create court ordered maintenance under the Texas Family Code.

When reviewing an agreement of the parties under contract law, this Court of Appeals held that you have to look to the parties’ intent and looked back to the Reformed California Divorce Decree which contained certain provisions regarding how the parties could in fact modify the terms of the decree.  One of the terms, as you might have guessed, was that the “parties could modify the contractual obligation of spousal support by signing a written agreement”.  Therefore, the subsequent MSA, the Court held, was a valid modification of the terms of the decree.

The Court then reviewed the husband’s arguments and found that he did not have a defense to the contract being enforced.  He tried to argue that the Texas trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction to modify/enforce the California decree and said that it was a mistake of fact.  However, the Court held that this is a mistake of law, which is not a defense under contract law.  The husband also tried to argue that the wife did not pay any consideration as a part of the agreement (one of the elements to create a contract).  However, the Court overruled that argument as well stating that the wife did in fact “pay consideration” when she agreed to reduce the husband’s arrears down as a part of the MSA.

The Court further held that the trial court erred in trying to modify the parties’ MSA in not granting the wife a judgment against the husband adjudicating that, “Because of the Reformed California Decree and the MSA were founded upon settlement agreements reached by the parties, the trial court had no power to supply terms, provisions, or conditions not previously agreed upon by the parties.”  Ammann v. Ammann, No. 03-09-00177-CV, 2010 WL 4260955, at *3 (Tex. App.—Austin Oct. 28, 2010, no pet.) (mem. op).    Therefore, the Court concluded that the MSA/enforcement was proper due to its allowance by the previous California orders.  Also, the Court concluded that it would strictly comply with the settlement terms and if there was not a particular term within that agreement the trial courts cannot simply just add what they want to make their ruling work.

As a practicing family law attorney, I have had several cases dealing with spousal maintenance issues.  It is one not to be taken lightly and one that everyone deserves to know their rights on.  If you are in the midst of a divorce and need legal guidance, contact Guest & Gray today.