A sticking point in many, many divorces across the nation is the division of marital property. In Texas, this division must be “just and right,” which means fair when the applicable circumstances are taken into consideration.
While some divorces are more straightforward than others, there are certain situations when this division of assets can become very complicated very quickly. A recent decision made by the Texas Court of Appeals highlights this point quite nicely. Review the details of Robert and Zulema’s divorce to learn more about the division of marital property and how it can go wrong.
If you have questions or concerns regarding the division of your marital property, an experienced Killeen divorce attorney is standing by to help.
Robert and Zulema were married in 2008, but the backstories shared by each party differ considerably.
The husband, Robert, shares that, at the age of 60 and after a recent divorce, he joined an online dating service that connected him with his soon-to-be wife, Zulema – then 27. The two engaged in online communications.
Some time later, Robert drove to Zulema’s hometown of Monterrey, Mexico, to meet her for the first time in a hotel bar. From here, the two proceeded to have a dinner date, and they also spent the next day together before Robert returned to his home in Texas. These events occurred in late 2007.
After corresponding online and making an additional visit or two, the two married in Monterrey in February 2008. Robert maintained that they had no sexual relationship, and he returned to Texas while Zulema remained in Mexico.
For her part, Zulema denied meeting Robert online and maintained that she met him at a hotel bar when he was vacationing in Monterrey.
The Court’s Stance
Robert introduced a photograph he had taken of Zulema into evidence. This photo closely resembled the picture of a woman named Zulema on the dating website in question. The court confirmed that the person in the photograph introduced into evidence and Zulema were one and the same.
While Robert and Zulema were living separately, he hired an attorney to help procure visas for Zulema and her young son and met up with her later that year for her immigration interview. Zulema and her son were denied visas, but Zulema did not share the reason with Robert.
Robert maintains that, from this point in 2008 until sometime in late 2017 or early 2018, he did not communicate with Zulema at all until she contacted him regarding her wish to come to the United States.
Robert again hired an attorney and endeavored to obtain visas for Zulema and her son, and it was at this point he learned that she had been denied a visa in 2008 due to a tourist visa violation in 2007 that barred entrance for five years. (Learn how divorce can affect your immigration status.)
Zulema initially admitted that she had worked while in the United States on a tourist visa, but she later changed her position. She ultimately maintained that, when she had been deported, she had simply gone along with the immigration officer’s assessment that she was working here illegally.
In late 2018, Zulema received her visa, and at this point, she moved in with Robert in Texas. Things become even more convoluted from here.
Robert’s testimony regarding property ownership throughout his marriage with Zulema included all the following assertions:
He sent Zulema money every month throughout 2008 and also purchased a phone, computer, and clothing for her.
He purchased a Jeep Cherokee for her and had it delivered to her that same year.
Robert denied obtaining any marital property with Zulema but did relay that he purchased a home in 2009 with funds that came from selling another property. Zulema, he maintained, made no contributions to this house.
Robert sold this house – along with most of its furnishings – in 2019 and proceeded to purchase a condominium, which he lived in for less than a year before selling it and moving into an apartment.
Robert reported that during the course of his marriage to Zulema, he was listed as a joint owner of a condominium, but he denied any actual ownership.
Robert reported having about $40,000 in a checking account and owning a 2002 Tahoe – the value of which he did not know.
Further, Robert introduced as evidence an email from Zulema in which she wrote, “My house in Mexico I’m still paying for it, that’s why I still can’t sell it.” Robert contended that Zulema bought the house in Mexico during their marriage, but Zulema had no memory of writing this email and reported that she had never purchased a home in Mexico.
Zulema also denied having either bank accounts or vehicles in Texas.
For her part, Zulema shared the following in relation to property ownership:
She denied that Robert purchased a Jeep for her but reported he had bought her a 2018 Chevy pickup when she came to live with him in Texas in 2018.
She also maintained that Robert owned his own larger 2018 Chevy pickup during this time.
The Trial Court Weighs In
The Texas trial court that originally heard this case expressed serious apprehensions about Zulema’s credibility based on the following concerns:
Blatant inconsistencies in her testimony under oath (“When Someone Lies to the Court in Texas”)
Her failure to acknowledge specific information under oath that documentation had already confirmed
Her lack of testimony regarding assets owned in Mexico and regarding Robert’s disposition of assets to her
The court did not stop there and went on to express its unease regarding inconsistencies in both parties’ testimony and the degree of divergence between them.
The trial court hearing this case granted Robert’s petition for divorce on the grounds of insupportability, which is a no-fault divorce based on something similar to irreconcilable differences.
The court’s ruling awarded both Robert and Zulema the assets currently in their possession and required them to pay the debts each of them had incurred since their separation date.
Zulema appealed the divorce court’s ruling, claiming that the court that heard the divorce case abused its discretion in terms of dividing the marital assets between them fairly. While there is no requirement that this division be equal, it must be just and right, and Zulema contended that, in this instance, it was not.
The appellate court in this case shared all the following statements in response:
“Because the standards for dividing a community estate involve the exercise of sound judgment, a trial court must be accorded much discretion in its decision.”
“The division ‘should be corrected on appeal only where an abuse of discretion is shown in that the disposition made of some property is manifestly unjust and unfair.’”
The court went on to note that it is not the appellate court’s job to reweigh the evidence in a case, and – as a result – trial court decisions are only reversed when they obviously overstep the bounds of discretion and substantially affect the fair division of property as a result.
Abuse of Discretion?
The appellate court went on to say that Zulema, as the complaining party, was tasked with providing the evidence necessary to prove the trial court’s abuse of discretion.
Both parties in a divorce have the responsibility to submit evidence of property values to afford the trial court something on which to base its determinations regarding the division of marital property.
The Value of Specific Assets
The court is unlikely to have any independent knowledge of the assets that make up a couple’s marital property. As such, courts look to the litigants to supply them with the necessary information.
In the case at hand, the appellate court maintains that both parties were vague in relation to identifying assets. For example, consider the following details about the case:
While Robert denied the acquisition of marital property, he admitted to owning property prior to marriage but failed to identify any specific assets.
On cross-examination, Robert admitted to buying and selling residences during his marriage to Zulema. He also admitted to having cash on hand and owning a vehicle.
While Zulema spent most of her marriage to Robert in Mexico, she denied having a vehicle or a home there (in direct contrast to the text discussing her house payments).
Zulema shared that she has an accounting degree and was working in Mexico throughout her marriage, but she denied acquiring any assets in Mexico during these 10 years.
Overall, evidence of assets and their values was spotty, and credibility was in short supply in this divorce case.
The Presumption of Property Ownership
In Texas, the assets that either spouse comes to own during the course of their marriage are considered marital property. To demonstrate that something acquired during this time is not marital, the spouse who disagrees on the point has to prove its separate nature, which can be exceptionally challenging.
The only exceptions when it comes to marital property are assets that are purchased entirely with separate funds and any gifts or inheritances that either spouse receives in their name alone during the course of the marriage.
The fact that Robert and Zulema were so cagey on the matter of separate and marital assets did not give the trial court much to work with in terms of the just and right division of marital property.
Failure to Fulfill Obligations
The appellate court found that both Robert and Zulema were negligent in their responsibility to provide evidence regarding marital assets and their attendant worth. As such, the trial court did not have the information required to divide the assets fairly between the divorcing spouses.
The appellate court determined that both Robert and Zulema were directly responsible for any discrepancies in the just and right division of the marital property awarded by the trial court, which amounted to each retaining ownership of what they already had in their possession.
Ultimately, the appellate court determined that Zulema could not skip the responsibility of providing the trial court with the necessary information regarding marital assets and then use this failure to accuse the court of abusing its discretion in the matter.
Zulema’s failure to produce evidence about the value of her home in Mexico and other assets she may have accumulated there during the course of her marriage precludes her from claiming that the trial court abused its discretion in the matter of property division.
The Division of Assets in Texas
In Texas, courts are required to assess marital property carefully and to distribute these assets – or their overall value – between the parties fairly when factors such as the following are taken into consideration:
The size of each spouse’s separate estate, which refers to those properties owned prior to marriage and kept separate throughout the marriage
Each spouse’s earning capacity, including level of education
Each spouse’s age and overall physical and mental health
Any disparity in earnings between the spouses
The nature of the marital estate
Each spouse’s financial obligations
The tax implications of the proposed division of marital assets
Whether fault played a role in the marriage’s end
Either spouse’s need for future financial support
Whether either spouse misused, dissipated, or otherwise artificially spent down marital assets in the course of the marriage or divorce
It Is Time to Consult with an Experienced Killeen Divorce Attorney
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a trusted divorce attorney whose impressive practice focuses on helping clients like you obtain favorable divorce terms that protect their financial rights and best interests.
Our seasoned legal team recognizes how important the results of your divorce are to your future, and we have the experience, drive, and keen legal insight to help you move forward with the confidence and purpose that comes from being well represented throughout the divorce process.