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.