Can I appeal my Divorce Case Judgment?

Today, we will discuss your options, when you are dissatisfied with the result of your divorce case.

Initially, it bears repeating that in most (perhaps, all) U.S. jurisdictions, fewer than 5 percent (5%)of the filed cases make it all of the way through trial. And, of those a very small percentage are appealed. So, the odds of your having an appeal are small. Nevertheless, appeals do happen.

We have done appellate work in Texas for more than thirty (30) years, so we have learned a few things about them. To begin with, it’s important to note that an appellate court is not going to reconsider the merits of the case, and (perhaps) reverse the judgment of the trial court, merely because one party is not satisfied with the case result. Instead, the appealing party (the “Appellant” in Texas state law practice) must show that the judgment of the trial court is based on reversible error. Let’s discuss this a bit.

In order for reversible error to exist, the appealing party must show (in Texas) that:

  1. the court made an error in its rulings; and, that error was of such magnitude that it probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment; or,
  2. the court abused in discretion on matters for which it has discretion. Those discretionary matters include issues such as child custody, and the award of Community Property[1]) are not going to be found to be error, unless the court’s judgment is found to be an abuse of that discretion. In Texas, that means that the court acted arbitrarily or unreasonably; or, without reference to guiding rules or principles. That is (obviously) a high standard to meet.

In regard to the first of those, one or more erroneous rulings, typically on a matter of law, must be shown. For example, incompetent evidence is admitted; or, improper Jury Argument is made (if your case, in fact, has a Jury). Then, it must be shown that the Appellant properly preserved that error, such as by making an objection; obtaining an adversary ruling (a ruling against the objection; and, (perhaps) offering proof of excluded evidence.[2] That establishes error. Next, the more difficult task of showing that the error is reversible must be shown.

The presumption in Texas is that any error committed by the trial court is “Harmless.” In order to overcome that presumption, the Appellant must show (again, in Texas) that “the error complained of:

(1) probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment; or

(2) probably prevented the appellant from properly presenting the case to the court of appeals. (TRAP 44.1).”

Item Number 2 rarely occurs, in our experience. So, the focus is on Item 1, above. To show that an improper judgment resulted on account of the error, that error must be of such magnitude that it likely overcomes the cumulative result of the other case elements. So, we are not talking about trivial matters. Errors of this kind are matters such as admitting expert testimony (and, likely opinions) that were not shown to be relevant and reliable. Or, excluding important evidence (documents, audio-visual materials, or testimony, e.g.) that would likely significantly alter the case result. That is not an easy task.

Appellate work is specialized and highly technical. If you believe that you may have an appealable issue, please contact a qualified appellate lawyer as soon as possible. There are time limits which, if missed, can end the option of appealing a trial court’s judgment.

That’s all for today: keep on loving those kiddos (Grown-ups, too)!

 

My best,

 

David

 

[1] Texas is one of just eight (8) Community Property States; so, this concept of “awarding Community Property” does not apply to the other states and territories on the United States)

[2] This is a general discussion The technicalities of error preservation are beyond the scope of this post.

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Premarital Property Agreements in Texas

It is our experience that many folks do not understand just how useful and powerful Premarital Property Agreements (PPA) can be in Texas. We hope to bring you some helpful information in that regard today. Accordingly, here is a brief, introductory discussion of PPA:

To begin, it is important to know that Texas law broadly supports the use of marital property agreements, both those made prior to marriage, as well as those made during marriage. Today, we will discuss Premarital Property Agreements. We will later write about marital property agreements made during marriage. So, please check back later for information about those.        

Next, the Texas Family Code expressly provides that:

  1. “(a) premarital agreement must be in writing and signed by both parties. The agreement is enforceable without consideration (i.e., without the exchange of anything of value, other than the terms of the agreement itself); Texas Family Code Section 4.002
  2. The parties are authorized to make a wide range of property agreements, provided that they are not in violation of public policy; and which do not purport to adversely affect the right to child support.

Due to that incredible breadth of that authority, PPA can completely change how people’s assets and liabilities will be divided upon death or divorce. For example, many of our clients who have been previously divorced want to ensure that there will be no fight about assets (such as retirement benefits or home equity) either upon their death, or upon another (potential) divorce. They may also wish to agree that there will be no Community Property created; but rather, that each spouse will own his or her earnings, and the property purchased with those earnings, as Separate Property. (Texas Family Code Section 4.003). Reimbursement claims can also be affected or eliminated by these agreements. (Texas Family Code Section 3.410). When done correctly, there is nothing left to divide nor allocate upon a party’s death or divorce, unless the parties wish to create some joint property, by the terms of their agreement.

  1. These types of agreements become effective upon marriage; (Texas Family Code Section 4.004).
  2. Importantly, these agreements may be amended during marriage (again, without consideration) in writing, signed by the parties. (Texas Family Code Section 4.005)

To support the use of premarital property agreements, Texas law favors the enforcement of premarital agreements voluntarily entered into by parties. Accordingly, the only way for a party to such an agreement to avoid that enforcement (assuming that the agreements become an issue in a subsequent marriage dissolution, such as a divorce, action between the parties) is for that party to prove that either:

  1. It was not voluntarily signed by the party seeking to prevent enforcement.

or

2a. The agreement was unconscionable when it was signed; and

2b. A fair and reasonable disclosure of the property or financial obligations of the other party was not made; and

2c. That disclosure was not waived by the parties to the agreement; and

2d. The party seeking to avoid the enforcement did not have, and reasonably could not have had, adequate knowledge of the property or financial obligations of the other party.

Unless those very narrow exceptions are proved, then the agreement will be enforced by the court, if requested. The Supreme Court of Texas has held that

“Recognizing (additional exceptions to enforceability, besides those two listed above) would judicially expand (the very limited exceptions provided by Texas law) and run afoul of our longstanding preference to protect the freedom of contract by enforcing contracts as written. Texas has a strong public policy favoring freedom of contract that is firmly embedded in our jurisprudence. We have repeatedly recognized that parties shall have the utmost liberty of contracting. And that their contracts, when entered into freely and voluntarily, shall be held sacred and shall be enforced by the courts. We rarely find a contract unenforceable on public policy grounds. Premarital agreements are no exception.” (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis added). In re Marriage of I.C., 551 S.W.3d 119, 124 (Tex. 2018).

Since there is so much that can be done through the usage of a PPA, it is recommended that, prior to your marriage, you consult with an attorney who is sufficiently experienced with them, if you are thinking using a Premarital Property Agreement.[1] I advise my clients to contact us as soon as a marriage is contemplated. We will want to have adequate time to discuss matters with our client; draft the initial documents; and then, have them reviewed by the other party’s attorney. Wedding Planning is stressful enough already, without adding an unnecessary, time-crunch element to them!

That is all for today. Please check our other blog posts and return from time to time to see newer ones.

[1] Please remember that other property agreements can be made during a marriage.

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Can CPS Terminate Parental Rights Based on Old Events?

As always, I can give advice only about cases pending under Texas law, since I am licensed within only that state. CPS in other states may be similar or dissimilar to Texas CPS

The Department of Family and Protective Services (of which CPS is a part) states in their publications that:

“(w)e promote safe and healthy families and protect children and vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect, and exploitation.

Values

Accountable: We act with a sense of urgency to deliver results in an accountable, ethical, and transparent manner.

Respectful: We recognize the value of each person and act timely, value privacy, and treat all with respect.”[1]

In light of those express commitments to act “urgently,” and “timely,” we might expect that if CPS had concern(S) about the safety and welfare of children, then they would focus on recent events involving those children. In our experience, however, that is not always the case.[2]

Our courts have held that allegations of abuse or neglect against a parent must not be too remote in time, if termination of parental rights is sought because of that behavior. And, if you think about it, that makes sense: something that a parent did or did not do years ago does not bear strongly on a child’s current living circumstances. Put another way, “termination proceedings should be based on facts that are fresh enough to apply to the children at the time of the trial.”[3]

Texas CPS has to show not only some act of abuse or neglect by the parent, but also, that the termination is in the current “best interest” of the child. So, something that happened long ago does not provide solid evidence of what is currently in a child’s best interest. Things change over time; kids mature, and their needs change.

So, what are some examples of time periods that our courts have found to be too long past (remote) to support a current termination of parental rights? Well, in our research we have learned that our (Texas) courts have, so far, not defined that time period precisely. They have, however, determined in one case that that five (5) years between the act of abuse or neglect, and the termination trial, was too long. Another Texas court has held that three (3) years was too remote to support a termination finding.

Consistent with those cases, the Texas legislature has enacted legislation in Texas which requires generally (as with most things dictated by a law, there are exceptions to the general rule) that termination cases end within one year of when they are begun. But, of course, even if they meet that standard, the acts of abuse or neglect may still be found by a court to be too remote if the case was not started until a long time after the incident(s) occurred.

So, CPS should investigate a case soon enough after alleged abuse or neglect occurs; and, begin and complete their legal case timely. The burden of accomplishing those things fall on CPS, and not on the parents.

As with most legal matters, it is important to consult with an attorney for legal advice as soon as possible. Once a case has been filed, you may be entitled to have legal counsel appointed for you.

As always, we wish you the best, and hope that all kids are treated with love and respect.

Until next time, please take care of yourself and your loved ones!

 

Best regards,

 

David

 

[1][1] Texas Child Protective Services Handbook,” Section 1110

 

[2] Granted that some things, such as our government’s response to a pandemic, is out of the control of CPS

[3] This language is from a brief that we prepared and filed

 

 

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Can I Change my Child Custody Order?

So, you have a child custody (or conservatorship) order. It was arrived at either by initial agreement of the parties, informal negotiation, mediation, or after a trial. And now, one of the parties wants to change it. Can that be done?

It is widely reported that each of the United States, and each territory of the United States of America, provides for modification of child custody orders under certain circumstances, such as a substantial change in the circumstances of a child, parent or other relevant party. The requirements for doing so vary from state to state. I am licensed to practice law in the State of Texas, and in no other. Accordingly, my comments will focus on, and be limited to, Family Law proceedings within the Texas court system. While these comments may or may not also apply to another state or territory, it is important for a party who is considering this issue to be advised by an attorney who is properly licensed within the relevant state.

In Texas a final “custody”[1] order may be changed under a few different conditions which may have arisen since the last custody order was entered[2]

The most common reason that a child custody order is changed is because of changed circumstances of a child, parent, or other party. The change(s) must be material and substantial, to the extent that the current order is no longer in the child’s best interest. Further, case law provides that the change must be something not anticipated by the current order. So, for example, the mere fact that a child has aged, and/or is in a different grade or school is not, by itself, a sufficient change to warrant a modification of custody. An example might by the child’s development of a learning disability or emotional condition that negatively affects the child; and, further, which is unacknowledged, or unaddressed, by the parent currently having “custody.” The types of changes that may be material and substantial vary from family to family. The question is whether that change is something that should be addressed by the court, because the current orders do not properly address it.

Another reason why a custody order can be changed is the designation of a child who is twelve (12) years or older. A child of that age may express his or her wish regarding custody. Importantly, because the best interest of the child is still the required finding for the custody change to be made, the court does not have to follow the wishes of the child. A child might prefer a parent who does not ensure that school assignments are completed; or, one who allows the child to abuse drugs or alcohol. It is unlikely the court would find the child’s desire to be in his or her best interest in those circumstances.

Finally, custody may be changed if the parent with custody voluntarily relinquishes possession to another, for six (6) months or more, unless that relinquishment was due to the parent’s military service. Of course, the child’s best interest is still paramount.

Child custody matters can be emotionally fraught. Having a good emotional support system, along with wise legal advice, can be helpful in getting though that minefield.

Until next time, take care of each other, and love those kiddos!

 

[1] ”Custody” in not a formal term used within the Texas Family Code. Arther the term “conservatorship” (a Trust term) is used to describe those entrusted with the care of a child or children. And, the right to designate the Primary Residence of a child is awarded to one of the conservators. Being a conservator who has that exclusive right is the equivalent of what most people think of when they used the term “custody.” So, for ease of understanding, it will be used herein.

[2] If the change of “custody” is sought within one year of the entry of the effective order, then there are additional circumstances that must be shown, besides what is discussed herein today, This is a topic for a future post, so stay tuned!

Important Factors in Cases Requesting Protective Orders

Introduction:

A protective order is a court order that can be entered by the court to protect a victim of domestic violence, assault (sexual or otherwise), abuse, stalking, and/or threats by a family member, household member, or (current or former) dating partner. We have written more about these cases here: Legal Protections for Family Violence (Part 1) and here Legal Protections Available for Family Violence. A review of those posts provides context for this one. Today, we will discuss some of the considerations that are pertinent to these types of cases.

Discussion:

Cases in which Family Violence has been alleged by one partner against another raise issues that are not usually present in other types of cases; issues such as (often) a lack of witnesses who might corroborate or dispute the allegations; sometimes, either a lack of physical evidence, or evidence which is ambiguous, such as whether physical marks, bruises, scratches, and so on are “defensive,” i.e. were inflicted by a person trying to protect themselves, or were caused by an event unrelated to an encounter between the parties; or, even whether they were self-inflicted. So, it is important for the person requesting the Protective Order, as well as the person who is alleged to have committed Family Violence, to focus on the details of the case. These cases are not ones “to wing,” or to do “off the cuff.”

As discussed in the first article linked above [“Legal Protections for Family Violence (Part 1)], Texas has provisions for Emergency Protective Orders, which are typically granted upon the arrest of a person for a Family Violence crime (such as Domestic Assault), and usually last for sixty-one (61) days. Those are granted without a hearing, based solely on the arrest documentation provided by the police department. Those relatively short-lived cases are not what this post is addressing. Instead, it’s the potentially much longer Protective Orders that can be granted by a District Court, after application and hearing, that we are focusing on today (these cases are discussed within the second article linked above, (“Legal Protections Available for Family Violence”).

The investigation of the legal case (for both parties) typically begins with the police report (“Incident Report”). In Texas, the Application for Protective Order will almost certainly contain a report from one or more law enforcement officer who investigated the incident. The details of this report are important, and if they don’t align with other case materials, such as medical reports, witness statements, photographs, audio/visual recordings (and so on), then those details are suspect, and can be questioned. A skilled lawyer, defending the person against whom the allegations are made, will point-out those discrepancies to the court, so as to cast doubt on the reported incident of Family Violence. And, a skilled lawyer prosecuting the case will address and explain those discrepancies (to the extent that can be done) before the defense lawyer has the opportunity to exploit them.  Details, and explanations of variances within those details, are important.

Next, any witnesses who might either support or refute the case allegations should be approached, and, if possible, interviewed. If a witness refuses to speak with either lawyer, then that lawyer should be sure to provide evidence that the witness seemed to be favoring one party’s ability to investigate the case, instead of providing truthful information to everyone who sought it. This raises the issue of the impartiality of the witness.

How do the witness statements compare to the statement given by the person claiming to be the victim? If there are more than one witness, do they agree with one another on all important details? Do the witness statements conform with the officer’s report, and with the physical evidence, visual/audio recordings, photographs, etc.? Are there reasonable explanations for the variances? Is there evidence that witnesses discussed the events in question with one another, to arrive at a consensus narrative?

I next want to know whether the person making the claims in the case sought medical treatment. If so, was there a diagnosis made? Is there a medical report confirming that the wounds, marks, etc. are consistent (or inconsistent) with the patient history (what the patient told the health care provider)? When this information exists, it is often helpful to one side or the other. Consequently, both sides need to be aware of its existence.

Finally, I want to see how the parties communicated with one another running up to their important encounters, and whether they communicated afterwards. I expect to find a text string between the parties when I get one of these cases. What did they say to one another before, during, and after the event(s) in question? This is often quite helpful in determining what likely did, or did not, occur between them.

Protective Order cases can have a significant impact on both parties. And so, I encourage everyone involved in one to take it seriously. The court wants to grant a Protective Order when appropriate, but not grant one when not proper. Our job is to help the court see what is right in this particular case.

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