In the State of Texas, marital property – or the property a couple comes to own over the course of their marriage – must be divided between the spouses in a manner that is considered just and right in the event of divorce. While a just and right division can mean an equal division, this is not necessarily the case, as seen in a recent case heard by the Texas Court of Appeals.
If you have questions or concerns about property division in a Texas divorce, an experienced Killeen divorce attorney is standing by to help.
Factors that Affect Property Division
Texas divorce courts consider a range of factors in the process of dividing marital assets between divorcing spouses. Consider the following factors that can influence the division of marital property:
Fault in relation to the breakup
Income disparity between the divorcing spouses
Each spouse’s age, overall health, and education
Each spouse’s earning capacity
Depending upon the unique circumstances of the case at hand, assets are sometimes divided disproportionately, which means one spouse may receive more than the other. Discuss your unique case with a trusted Killeen divorce attorney for a better idea of how assets will be divided in your case.
The Divorce Background
In the divorce case in question, the husband and wife had lived together for 18 years before establishing a common-law marriage in 2015 – after the wife’s previous marriage in El Salvador was legally dissolved.
The couple separated in 2018, and in 2019, the wife filed for divorce on the grounds of insupportability – or what many people refer to as irreconcilable differences – as well as cruelty. The husband responded with a counter-petition based on insupportability, cruelty, and his wife’s adultery. Both spouses sought a disproportionate division of marital assets.
The Marital Assets
The couple’s marital property included all the following assets:
The husband’s retirement account
Two homes they had purchased prior to marriage as tenants in common
Upon separation, each spouse took up residence in one of the two homes.
Alleged Cruelty and Wrongdoing
At trial, only the husband and wife testified.
The wife claimed that her husband abused her sexually, physically, and psychologically throughout their 20-year relationship. She hadn’t reported the incidents to the police, but she had shared them with friends and family. She also reported that she had been seeing someone new for about a year, but she did not enter this romantic relationship before the separation.
The husband denied the alleged abuse and cited his wife’s cruelty and adultery.
Each Spouse’s Financial Situation
Each spouse made a case in terms of the numbers.
The Wife’s Testimony
The wife testified that she earned $1,600 per month cleaning houses and that she had no other form of income, no health insurance benefits, and no retirement benefits. She was responsible for the mortgage payment on the home she occupied and for loan payments for two of the cars she possessed – neither of which was worth more than was owed on it.
She reported having $6,000 in credit card debt, more than $6,000 in attorney fees, and $600 in monthly costs for one of their minor children’s extracurriculars. She also shared that her husband had not paid the $6,000 in attorney fees awarded to her in pretrial temporary orders.
The Husband’s Testimony
The husband reported earning between $4,000 and $4,600 per month and having a 401(k) plan with a balance of $113,000 sponsored by his employer. He had two vehicles – one he owned outright and the other he was making payments on. The husband paid $1,500 in child support for their three minor children.
The Trial Court’s Ruling
The trial court dissolved the marriage based on the wife’s petition, which cited insupportability and cruelty, and proceeded to grant her a more significant allotment of the marital estate, including all the following assets:
Fifty percent of her husband’s retirement account
The cars in her possession
The home she resided in, which was identified as her separate asset, and all corresponding debt
Sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of the home the husband resided in
The Husband’s Argument at Appeal
At appeal, the husband argued two primary points in relation to the trial court's decision:
The trial court abused its discretion when determining his wife’s disproportionate share of marital assets. The husband argued that there was no reasonable basis for the division.
The trial court erred in affirming the attorney fees awarded to his wife in the temporary orders.
The Wife’s Disproportionate Share of Assets
The trial court awarded the wife a disproportionately large share of the marital estate. Divorce courts in Texas are called upon to “order a division of the estate of the parties in a manner that the court deems just and right, having due regard for the rights of each party and any children of the marriage.” Within this context, however, the court has considerable discretion.
Because the husband did not point to or define a clear abuse of discretion on the part of the court, the appeals court presumed the proper application of discretion, which translates to the appeals court affirming the trial court’s decisions on the matter. As long as the trial court’s division of marital property is considered equitable or fair, it need not be equal.
However, the trial court must have a reasonable basis for ordering a disproportionate division of marital assets, and a wide range of factors can be taken into consideration in the process, including all the following information:
Each spouse’s ability to earn
Disparity of income between the spouses
Each spouse’s abilities and level of education
Each spouse’s business opportunities
Each spouse’s age and overall health
Each spouse’s separate assets
The benefits the spouse who is not responsible for causing the breakup would have enjoyed had the marriage not ended
These factors can lead to highly unique outcomes for each divorce case brought before a trial. If you’re uncertain how a court will decide on your case, discuss your situation with a knowledgeable Killeen divorce lawyer. He or she will be able to provide clarity and insight into your case.
Considering the Trial Court’s Ruling
In this case, the trial court granted the divorce on the grounds of insupportability and cruelty. However, it’s not clear whether fault on the part of the husband was taken into consideration in the court’s final division of assets. Fault is a matter that trial courts can take into account in the division of marital property, even when the divorce is no fault.
The Underlying Reasoning
Without the trial court providing more clarity, the disproportionate division of assets, which is not disputed, could have been based on financial disparity, the husband’s cruelty, or both.
At trial, the wife alleged that she had been abused throughout their long relationship. The husband denied the accusation and accused the wife of committing adultery, but the trial court may have found the wife’s testimony more credible.
Unlike the trial court, which can observe the parties’ testimony and assess their credibility, the appeals court may not impose its own assessment regarding the weight of each party’s testimony or credibility.
The trial court also could have based the unequal property division on financial disparity, including the fact that the husband earned more than twice what his wife earned and had employment-based benefits that his wife did not.
In light of these facts, the appellate court did not find that the trial court abused its discretion in terms of the just and right division of marital property.
The Matter of Attorney Fees
Early in the case, a hearing was set for temporary orders. The husband’s counsel filed a motion for continuance based on personal affairs. Nevertheless, the wife’s counsel proceeded with a request for temporary orders. Ultimately, the wife was awarded temporary attorney fees by an associate judge. The husband appealed the ruling, but the trial judge declined to consider the appeal.
Failure to Cite Legal Authority
In his post-trial appeal, the husband’s challenge is presumed to be based on the wife being awarded legal fees when his own attorney was unavailable, which the husband believed should have resulted in a continuance of the temporary orders hearing.
However, the appeals court found that an appellate brief must contain clear arguments supporting the claims made “with appropriate citations to authorities and to the record.” Failure to do so results in a waiver. As such, the appellate court found that the husband waived his rights regarding this issue.
Failure to Show Error
The appellate court found that even if the husband’s brief had properly cited legal authority, his request would not have shown error. A trial court can only grant a continuance when sufficient cause for doing so is supported by an affidavit, the law, or consent from both parties. Absence of counsel generally is not considered sufficient cause unless the trial court uses its discretion.
In this case, the appellate court found “no explanation why the motion for continuance was filed after the pretrial and on the day before trial.” Counsel is required to notify the trial court promptly when scheduling conflicts arise; in this case, the efforts of the husband’s attorney to do so are called into question.
As such, the husband’s second issue was overruled, and the trial court’s findings held.
The Division of Marital Assets FAQ
The division of marital assets in Texas is complex, and it is not unusual to have questions. The answers to some of those questions asked most frequently can help. In addition, you can also contact a knowledgeable Killeen divorce attorney for help answering questions specific to your case.
What Qualifies as Separate Property?
Any separate property that either spouse owns prior to marriage and keeps separate throughout the marriage will remain in his or her possession alone upon divorce. However, intermingling separate assets with marital assets can blur the line between them and make division necessary.
What Is the Dissipation of Marital Assets?
The parties to divorce are barred from committing what is considered “fraud on the community.” One primary source of such fraud in divorce is the dissipation of assets, which means one spouse uses marital assets to his or her own advantage before or during the divorce proceedings. The dissipation of assets can take all the following forms:
Transferring, gifting, or otherwise moving money without the other spouse’s consent or knowledge
Aren’t Marital Assets Always Divided Equally?
Marital assets must be divided equitably – or fairly – but they are not necessarily divided equally in the State of Texas. Instead, the unique circumstances involved in every case guide the division.
How Are Retirement Accounts Addressed?
The division of retirement benefits that you, your spouse, or both of you receive from your employers will be considered based on timing. If you brought a retirement account into the marriage, the asset’s value at that time is your separate property. However, any increase in value over the course of your marriage is considered a marital asset that must be divided.
What Happens When Both Spouses Reach an Agreement on the Division of Marital Property?
The fact is that most divorcing couples – with the skilled legal guidance of their respective divorce attorneys – are able to negotiate mutually acceptable terms regarding the division of marital property outside of court. If you and your spouse reach an agreement, the court is almost certain to accept it and include it in the terms of your divorce.
An Experienced Killeen Divorce Attorney Can Help
Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a formidable divorce attorney with decades of experience helping clients like you successfully resolve complex property division terms that uphold their financial rights and support their brightest futures.