Articles Posted in Divorce Helpful Hints

What is a Mediated Settlement Agreement?

If you reach an agreement in a mediation, more precisely called a Mediated settlement agreement or MSA for short, the agreement is binding on you and all other parties you are agreeing with in a family law case as long as the MSA is drafted in the way that is required under the Texas Family Code. The agreement must be the result of a mediation, hence the name, which is basically just the meeting of both parties with a neutral third person facilitating the conversation so that the parties can come to an agreement. Texas law encourages mediation as a cost-efficient and time-efficient way of settling disputes. One of the benefits of mediation is that instead of a judge who has only a glimpse into the lives of parties based on evidence presented to him or her, during a mediation the parties who know their situation and family the best get to come to an agreement that works for them and is custom to their situation.

One downside to a mediation could be that as opposed to a judge who should know what the consequences of their decision could potentially be, parties could be making agreements in a mediated settlement agreement using language that will have consequences after the agreement is entered that they did not intend. One of the reasons that we trust judges to make decisions for us in legal matters is that in general they have years of experience dealing with similar matters and they should understand what all of the legal jargon that goes into an order actually means.

Aren’t half of marriages going to end in divorce no matter what?

Sort of. It is true that about 40 to 50 percent of marriages in America end in divorce. With numbers that high, some might assume that divorce is almost inevitable in most marriages. But research indicates that there are certain things that successful couples are doing to keep their marriages successful while there are things that couples who end up divorcing are doing that make divorce almost certain. Understandably, most of our clients are past the point of looking for ways to save their marriage, but hopefully some of the people who are seeking out this divorce blog may be able to use the research to make positive changes in their marriages and avoid the costly and stressful process that is divorce.

What does the research show about divorce?

Family Law Discovery Issues:

If there is one aspect of practicing law that a consensus of attorneys will agree is a mental beat-down, it would be the discovery process. Since discovery is a necessary evil, discovery is a tool that attorneys must effectively wield in order to adequately represent their client.

Very often, we have men and women who are attempting to battle through a divorce on their own, and once they are served with discovery requests they come looking for help. That is the smart move. An experienced family law attorney will know exactly what needs to be done and will get your case on track.

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.

I am by no means a licensed mental health professional, psychologist or psychiatrist; however if you have been a follower of my blog regarding divorce, child custody, or any family law issue you know that I constantly write about the psychological tolls that the cases take on my clients.  This is because I witness every day the psychological struggles that my clients go through.   Divorce is hard on everyone involved, no matter how you slice it.  Many people hear this, but do not actually understand until they are in the trenches.  However, it is so important to understand, for your mental and physical health, before you are in the trenches that this will be a difficult process and have a list of coping mechanisms to help you through it.

So many people fall into the trap of bitterness, anger and resentment and cannot get past those emotions.    While I will agree that your feelings are legitimate, you also need to work through those feelings so that you can get to the other side and feel a release.  Many people hang on, even after the divorce is finalized.  I have seen what this does to people, and I do not wish it on anyone.  Getting past that anger is not an easy feat, but one that is beyond necessary.

Also, divorce is difficult because it bring change—the familiarity is no longer there, you have to move, your holidays are not the same, you lose a pet, you have to split the time with the children, etc.  Change is so hard and I will be the first to admit that I hate it.  But, change is a part of life; in fact, life is about seasons and weathering those seasons.  How will you weather in a mentally healthy way?

You may be just beginning your divorce case or you may be in the middle.  Regardless of your current position, there are certain tips that will make this painful process much smoother in the grand scheme of things.  In fact, if you would follow these ten easy tips, you would be worlds ahead of other people going through divorces.

  1. Stress management.  There are a couple of ways our clients are able to work through the stress that occurs with a divorce; here are a couple of my recommendations: Research and find a counselor with whom you are comfortable.  I know, I know—most people hate the word “counseling” and feel as though it would not help them. But, so many of our clients attend counseling and I am amazed at the way they are able to process as we go through the divorce.  It does not matter if it is a pastor, licensed counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or a free clinic; you just need to talk to someone.  The emotional toll of the divorce can be so taxing and many people need help with coping; this includes you.  OR if you are not ready to take the counseling step, get out and exercise.  Or even better, you can do both.  Go for a walk with a friend, join a gym, or attend a fitness class that interests you.  Start a fitness routine and it will give you something to look forward to.  And remember what Elle Woods says, “Exercise gives you endorphins.  Endorphins make you happy.  Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.”
  2. Keep off of social media.  I cannot stress enough—do not post anything on any social media account about your soon to be ex, their paramour, the children, the case, etc.   While it may feel good at the time, it will only hurt you in the long run.  All judges frown upon it and it will make the case harder than it already is.