Spousal Maintenance & Minimum Reasonable Needs: Opinions, Oct. 24, 2017

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals released a published opinion in Willis v. Willis, No. 14-15-00913-CV, on spousal maintenance and evidence of minimum reasonable needs.

Father and mother married in 1995 and had three children, two of which are special needs and receive SSI. Mother has serious medical issues which result in her receiving dialysis treatments three times a week and has resulted in prolonged periods of hospitalization in the past. Mother receives SSI.

At the time of trial, the children lived at the mother’ s house. Mother and father had been separated for more than five years before the divorce commenced. Mother filed the divorce petition in October 2014. Father counter-petitioned. At the bench trial, only mother and father testified. A decree was entered and the father appealed. His issues on appeal are 1) that the trial court erred in dividing the community estate; 2) the trial court erred by ordering the father to pay $972/mo to mother in spousal maintenance; and 3) if the court does not sustain either of the first two issues, then the COA should conclude that the mother is not entitled to both spousal maintenance and the $60,000 judgment contained in the decree because mother asked the trial court to grant one or the other, but not both.

On the first issue, the father argued the division was unfair to him because he received less than twelve percent of the community estate even though there was no evidence of bad behavior by him. At trial, father testified his retirement account was worth about $144,000, though his I&A stated the community interest in the retirement account was $134,898.67. The entire retirement account was awarded to the mother in the decree. After trial, the father filed a MNT alleging newly discovered evidence showed the father’s retirement account was actually worth  $404,696.01 and asking the trial court to grant a new trial based on the evidence and that he did not fail to discover the evidence as a result of lack of due diligence. The trial court denied the MNT.  The father did not appeal the denial of the MNT (the COA pointed this out twice in its opinion). After the MNT hearing, the trial court entered FF/CL which indicated it based its decree on the trial evidence that the retirement account was worth between $135,000 and $144,000, not the $404,000 value. The COA concluded that, based on the record, the trial court did not divide the community estate based on the $404,000 value of the retirement account and it would not be proper for the COA to use this value in its review. Thus, the COA found the division was not 88%/12%, as alleged by the father, but more in the range of 53-56%/44-47% in the mother’s favor.

The father also argued the trial court erred by purportedly basing the disproportionate division on certain findings.  That is, the father alleged in his brief eight instances in which the trial court purportedly misinterpreted the evidence (e.g., “The trial court erred in relying upon Howard’s alleged fraud as a basis for a disproportionate division of the community estate because the evidence is insufficient to show that Howard committed any actual or constructive fraud.”). The COA found that, even if these eight assertions were true, the division was not manifestly unfair based on the evidence at trial (i.e., the nature of the community property, the relative earning capacity and business experience of the spouses, their relative financial condition and obligations, the size of the separate estates, and the health and physical condition of the parties). The COA overruled the father’s challenge to the division.

Of course, if it is the case that the retirement account is worth $404,000 instead of $144,000, that is a major difference which redounded in the mother’s favor.

In his second issue, the father challenged the court’s award of spousal maintenance of $972/mo, arguing the trial court erred in awarding spousal maintenance because there was no evidence that the mother would lack sufficient property on dissolution of the marriage to provide for her reasonable minimum needs.

During her testimony, the mother testified that she believes she is able “to provide for herself and her children’s reasonable needs for living” and that her belief is based on her being able to lived rent-free at her mother’s house and that if she could not live at her mother’s house, it would be much more difficult. The mother’s FIS indicated that her expenses are $1,455/mo, that she receives $603/mo in SSI benefits for herself, $806 in SSI benefits for her two sons, and child support of $1,075/mo. Additionally, the trial court awarded a judgment of $60,000 to her to be paid in $1,000/mo installments as part of the division of the community estate. Her $603/mo in SSI for herself and the $1,000/mo for sixty months totals $1,603/mo, $148 more than her minimum reasonable needs of $1,455/mo. The COA found that the evidence was thus legally insufficient to support a finding that the mother lacked sufficient property to provide for her minimum reasonable needs and that the trial court abused its discretion in awarding the spousal maintenance of $972/mo. The COA sustained the father’s issue. This begs the question: What happens at the end of sixty months?

The final issue, as argued by the father, was conditional. Because the COA sustained the spousal maintenance issue, the final issue was moot.

The COA modified the trial court’s decree to remove the spousal maintenance and affirmed the remainder.

 

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