Articles Posted in Appeal

Can I appeal my divorce while still accepting benefits from the parts of the judgment that work in my favor?

As with most questions asked about the law, the answer to whether you can appeal a part of your divorce while accepting benefits from the parts of the divorce you do like is, it depends.  More accurately, the answer is, probably not. This is because of a legal concept called estoppel.

What is estoppel?

Rule 11 agreements are terms that a party can agree on and have the same affect as a court order. So long as the agreement satisfies the requirements of Texas Civil Procedure 11, these agreements are enforceable.

Can I get out of a Rule 11 agreement that I entered into by mistake?

There are certain situations where these agreements can be considered void; one way to make the agreement void is by showing the agreement was made by mistake. In the Dallas 5th District Court of Appeals case, In the Interest of A.B. & D.Y, a mother wanted to void a Rule 11 agreement that she had made because she claimed the agreement was made by mistake. In this case, the court explained, “mutual mistake is an affirmative defense, that states when the parties to an agreement have contracted under a misconception or ignorance of a material fact, the agreement will be avoided.” When someone wants to void a Rule 11 agreement based on a mistake, it is up to that person to prove to the court that the agreement should be voided.

What if I don’t like how the court divided the property in my divorce? Can I appeal it?

 You can try and appeal the courts division of your property in a divorce settlement but the appeals court will have a certain standard that they will use when reviewing the trial court’s decision. The appellate court is going to review the court’s decision by using an abuse of discretion standard. What this means is that the appellate court will review the case and make sure there was sufficient evidence for the trial court to base its division of property on. Then, based on that evidence, the appellate court will decide if the trial court’s division was reasonable. If the trial court can show that its decision is based on meaningful and firm evidence, then the appellate court will not overrule the trial court’s division of property.

In my divorce, the court did not divide the property equally, is this fair?

When someone decides to become a lawyer he or she must go through a rigorous process before becoming certified to practice law. It is required that he or she complete law school, which can take anywhere from to three or four years, and pass an extensive exam. During the course of study, prospective lawyers will learn civil procedure, criminal procedure, evidence, legal writing, and various other courses that will prepare them to sufficiently represent a client in the courtroom. Years of preparation and thousands of hours are spent for a person to prepare to be able to adequately represent another person. With all the criteria that must be met for a lawyer to represent another person in court, it would be unreasonable to expect people, without adequate education, to be successful in representing themselves in a courtroom. But, some people try to represent themselves in the courtroom with no legal assistance. This is what the legal field refers to as “pro se”, the Latin phrase meaning “for oneself”. Unfortunately, in some cases, people do so to no avail and Mr. Lares, in his appeal to the Fourth Court of Appeals Court, Lares v. Flores, found out just how difficult the process can be.

Why did Lares’ attempt to represent himself fail?

When a decision is made on a case a person can attempt to appeal the decision by claiming the original court made an error. When making an appeal there are certain rules of procedure that must be sufficiently followed for the court to consider your appeal. Lares had several issues that he wanted to appeal from the trial court. He claimed the trial court erred by failing to provide him notice of the hearing, denying his motion for continuance, refusing to hold his ex wife, Flores, in contempt, and believing his ex wife’s testimony over his because he was incarcerated at the time. Lares needed to prepare an adequate brief of these issues that followed the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure. Lawyers are trained to know these rules and expected to follow them when they are submitting a brief to the court. If the brief is not adequate, the court will wave the complaints made and the appeal will not be considered.

Usually, it is in the best interest of a child to live with their parent. This is not always the case though, and there are times that a court may need to terminate the rights of a parent. The court will terminate a parent-child relationship if it finds it to be in the best interest of the child and if the parent committed one or more of the statutory acts set out in Texas Family Code 161.001. Abuse and neglect will not always be the only reasons that a parent’s rights have been terminated. Instead, each case that is brought before the court will be determined on a fact based analysis considered by several factors.

How does the court determine the best interest of the child?

In 1976 the court came up with several factors that determine the best interest of the child in Holley v. Adams, and are now termed the Holley factors. These factors include 1) the desires of the child; 2) the emotional and physical needs of the child now and in the future; 3) the emotional and physical danger to the child now and in the future; 4) the parental abilities of the person seeking custody; 5) the programs available to assist the person seeking custody in promoting the best interest of the child; 6) plans for the child by the person seeking custody; 7) the stability of the home or proposed placement; 8) the acts or omissions of the parent that may indicate the parent-child relationship is not a proper one; and 9) any excuse for the acts or omissions of the parent. Not all of the factors listed above will apply to each case brought before the court. The court will use the factors on a case-by-case basis to decide if termination of the parent’s rights is in the child’s best interest.

You just finalized your divorce or custody matter, however it seems like every time you turn around you think that your child should live with you instead of the other parent primarily of the time.  Even though it is has not even been a year yet since your final orders were rendered, it just seems as though something is constantly coming up and you are genuinely concerned.  The other parent may be endangering the child’s physical welfare or emotional development such as engaging in criminal activity, drug usage, physical/mental/sexual abuse, or overall endangerment of the child.  You want to change the custody orders now but you have been told that there are certain roadblocks in requesting the modification this soon.  What should you expect?

Less than One Year Requirements 

If you are filing your petition to change the parent who has the exclusive right to designate the child’s residence in less than one year, there are specific requirements that you must follow.  In fact, you must qualify within these statutory parameters to even file your case.  The most important and crucial requirement is the affidavit that must be attached to your petition.  In fact, Texas Family Code Section 156.102 mandates that an affidavit must be attached to your pleadings and “(b) must contain, along with supporting facts, at least one of the following allegations: (1) that the child’s present environment may endanger the child’s physical health or significantly impair the child’s emotional development; (2) that the person who has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child is the person seeking or consenting to the modification and the modification is in the best interest of the child; or (3) that the person who has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child has voluntarily relinquished the primary care and possession of the child for at least 6 months and the modification is in the best interest of the child.”  Frequently, we see the first requirement being the grounds on which someone files a modification.  Allegations are made that something bad has happened in the other parent’s care and this is why that parent should no longer have possession of the child.  But, the key is that the allegations must be made in the affidavit.  Many people get hung up on this requirement and many times affidavits fall short on their face.

You have been served with a petition for divorce and it states you have to file an answer by 10:00 a.m. on the Monday next after the expiration of 20 days.  However, you have been working things out with your soon-to-be-ex spouse and you guys have agreed upon everything. Your spouse tells you that the service part is just part of the legal process and you do not have to do anything because you have already signed the agreed decree.  However, once everything is said and done the district clerk’s office mails you a copy of the decree and it is not the one you signed.  In fact, it contains terms that are the complete opposite as to what you agreed.  You are shocked and you have no idea what to do; according to the final decree mailed to you, your ex-spouse is taking the children, the home, and the car.

You contact an attorney and find out that your ex-spouse actually waited for your answer period to expire and then went before the judge and asked for a “default” divorce on the basis of you not answering or making an appearance.  The judge, not knowing the background of the case and relying upon the ex-spouse’s allegations, granted the default divorce and now you must work to get that reversed.

The good news is you do have a form of recourse.  You can file a motion to set aside the default judgment and a motion for new trial.  In order to be successful on this type of motion, it is important that you know the grounds for doing so.  Luckily, several appellate courts have discussed this test, also known as the Craddock elements.  It was recently discussed again by the Texarkana 6th District Court of Appeals in In the Matter of the Marriage of Lucas Woods and Jessica Woods and In the Interest of L.K.L.W. and S.B.L.W., Children.  This Court held that to analyze whether a motion for new trial should be granted and to set aside a default judgment, the trial courts must look at the following factors: “(1) the failure of the defendant to answer before judgment was not intentional, or the result of conscious indifference on his part, but was due to a mistake or accident; (2) the motion for a new trial sets up a meritorious defense; and (3) granting the motion will occasion no delay or otherwise work an injury to the plaintiff.”

You have just finished a long bench trial in your divorce and you do not feel that the trial court was correct in its division of your assets and liabilities.  In fact, you feel that the judge was completely wrong and you got the short end of the stick.  So, you wonder what you can do about it.  You absolutely can appeal, but you have a short window frame in order to do so and it is imperative you take certain steps in appealing.

The 7th District Court of Appeals in Amarillo makes this fact abundantly clear in Kenneth Dale Rodgers, Appellant vs. Mary Elaine Rodgers, Appellee in determining whether or not (a) “the trial court abused its discretion in the division of the property” which (b) “materially affected a just and right division of the marital estate.”   In that case, the husband was very unhappy with the property division and he appealed.  However, the husband failed to request findings of fact and conclusions of law from the trial court within the required amount of time. Therefore, the appellate court had no idea what the basis of the trial court’s ruling was and was forced to go along with it.  This is because, as the Court of Appeals held, you must request findings of fact and conclusions of law from the trial court and the trial court must then file those within a certain period of time. This allows the Court of Appeals to determine why the trial court held what it held.  The record sometimes helps, but findings of fact and conclusions of law are obviously more solid and preferred by the appellate courts.

When you have a bench trial (trial before judge, not jury), Texas Rules of Civil Procedure Rules 296 and 297 mandate that you must file your request for findings of fact and conclusions of law from the trial court “within twenty days after the judgment is signed” and then the trial court must “file its findings of fact and conclusions of law within twenty days after a timely request has been made.”  If you fail to do this, then “the trial court is presumed to have made all findings of fact necessary to support its judgment, and it must be affirmed on any legal theory that is supported by the evidence.” Rodgers v. Rodgers.

You are divorced and in your final orders you were awarded spousal maintenance on the basis of your disability and inability to earn sufficient income.  So, you went through all of the stages of proving your disability and proving that you could not earn the money that you need to meet your minimum reasonable needs and the judge ordered that your ex-spouse a certain amount per month to you for a certain period of time.  As you know, spousal maintenance is governed by Chapter 8 of the Family Code and with respect to a disabled spouse, it does state that maintenance can be ordered for as long as the disability persists (longer than the statutorily limited period of time).  If it is nearing the ending date of your receipt of the monthly spousal support payments, you are becoming worried because you do not know what you are going to do at this point.  Can you seek further maintenance from the Court because you are still disabled and need the money to survive?

This question was directly addressed in Stephanie Ann Novick v. Andrew A. Shervin by the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas.  There, the trial court held that the wife was “presently disabled” and ordered that the husband should pay her “$2000 per month for 24 months.”  When the time was drawing near for the husband’s payments to cease, the wife filed a motion to modify to continue the support payments and the trial court dismissed that claim to which the wife appealed.  Therefore, the Dallas Court of Appeals had to determine whether or not the trial court erred in failing to honor the wife’s request in continuing the spousal support payments.  In doing do, the Court reviewed a few other appellate cases involving this particular issue to seek guidance which led the Court to render a bright line rule to determine whether or not the support payments could be continued.

The Court held, “An award of spousal maintenance in a divorce decree is properly the subject of a motion for continuance only if the decree indicates the trial judge intended to make the award pursuant to section 8.054(b) rather than 8.054(a).”  Section 8.054(b) allows a trial court to find the spouse disabled (giving guidance as to how and what it means) and in finding the spouse to be disabled, the trial court will make an award of maintenance.  This award can be made subject to periodic request based upon the request of either party and also subject to a motion to modify.  However, Section 8.504(a)  places a duration limit on how long the court can award the maintenance for (5 years) and states that a trial court must render the shortest period possible unless the spouse’s ability to earn income is totally diminished by physical or mental disability.    The key for this Court was that you can seek continuance of the maintenance if the award was under Section 8.054(b).  An example of this type of award would be where a spouse is found to be permanently disabled, awarded spousal maintenance for longer than 5 years, and the Court also order that the spouse receiving support can seek continuance beyond the court-ordered termination date.

Unfortunately, there are several horror stories about parties appearing pro se (without legal representation) in divorce, child custody, child support, etc. cases.  In fact, most of the time people make the mistake thinking that they can take care of the case themselves and then realize after the fact that they completely screwed it all up.  They then come to hire an attorney to unscrew those problems, which is most of the time easier said than done.  The best advice that can be given is to hire an attorney right at the beginning to ensure that you are fully protected and correctly advised throughout the entire proceeding.  You do not want to go through an entire divorce and then realize that you did something very bad and then try to appeal it, also on your own.  Because it can almost be guaranteed that if you attempt the second feat, appealing a case, on your own it will most definitely not go in your favor.

This issue was directly addressed in In the Interest of C.M., A Child by the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas.  In that case, the mother and father appeared and agreed to the terms of their divorce, including the child custody terms.  The Court, on the record, ensured several times that the mother understood what she was agreeing to and that this was in fact the final hearing and final orders to which the mother replied that she did understand.  Unfortunately, the mother realized what she had agreed to post-prove up and realized that basically stripped her of parental rights and left her with only supervised visits.  Therefore, without representation she thought she would appeal the divorce orders with respect to custody stating that she did not understand and she did not consent to the terms as they were based on “false accusations that were not proven.”  However, the Court of Appeals revealed the record of testimony (which is made at all prove ups) and discovered that she did consent to the terms, several times, and even stated she understood several times.

What most people do not understand when they represent themselves is that they do have a right, when facing a consent judgment or agreed order, to withdraw your consent at any time before the judgment is rendered by the court.  So, the problem in this case was that mother had failed to do that and was trying to withdraw her consent post-divorce which the Court of Appeals held cannot happen.  In fact, the Court stated, “Agreed judgments, once rendered, are contracts between the parties that excuse error and operate to end all controversy between the parties.” Pate v. Pate, 874 S.W.2d 186, 188 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1994, writ denied.   Therefore, the Court held that they believed the mother’s appeal “was intended to constitute a withdrawal of her consent to the terms agreed upon at the bench trial” which was improper.  In the Interest of C.M., at page 11.