A New Judge for the 360th District Court

Does it matter who the Judge is?

As of January 1, 2017, the Judge of the 360th District Court in Tarrant County, Texas is the Honorable Patricia Bennett. Judge Bennett replaces Judge Michael Sinha, who had been the Judge of the 360th and, the prior to that, the Associate Judge of the 360th for years.

Judge Bennett has chosen Matt Riek to be her Associate Judge, and Judge Riek will take the bench on or about January 16, 2017. Judge Riek replaces Judge Cynthia Mendoza.

Both Judge Bennett and Judge Riek are Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and each has years of experience in divorce, custody, and family law. Additionally, Judge Riek was one of the most sought after and well-respected family law mediators in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex prior to agreeing to accept the position of Associate Judge.

So, with these changes, one might ask: Does it matter who the Judge is?

The short answer, particularly in Family Law is Yes!!!

Family law – meaning divorce, custody, grandparent rights, child support, spousal support, alimony, etc. – is an area of the law that, unlike most areas, is governed by the “discretion of the court.” Under Texas law, the trial court judge has wide discretion in determining a number of items in family law. What that means in simple terms is that you are not entitled to have a jury make the decision, it has to be the judge, and your chances of getting an appellate court to overturn the trial court’s decision are extremely small.

Some of the things that a family court judge gets to decide with little chance of being overturned are:

  1. How the property will be divided in a divorce – Will the property be divided 50/50 or 60/40 or 80/20 or in some other ratio?
  2. What happens to the property in a divorce – Do you get to keep the house? Or does your soon-to-be Ex? Or is there a Court Order to sell it?
  3. Who gets to live in the house while the case is pending?
  4. Who has to pay which bills while the case is pending?
  5. Who gets custody of the children while the case is pending?
  6. How much child support will be paid and by whom to whom?
  7. How much temporary spousal support will be paid, if any, while the case is pending – even if it’s for years – and by whom, to whom?
  8. Does anyone deserve Spousal Maintenance – the Texas version of court-ordered alimony – and if so how much and for how long, within some limits?
  9. What will the rights and duties be with respect to the children? Do you have a say in who the children’s doctor is? Dentist is? Surgeon is? Will there be surgery? Will the children go to a psychiatrist?
  10. On what days and at what times will you be allowed to see your children?
  11. Will you be able to Facetime with your children? Call them? Email them?

These are just a few of the things that family court judges get to decide, and as long as that Judge stays on the bench and as long as the children stay in the county, the same judge will keep deciding these issues regarding your children until they age out of the system.

So what do you think? Does it matter who the judge of your court is?

Christmas Gifts: What happens to them if a divorce comes along?

The holidays are a time for gift-giving. For those going through a divorce at this time of year, the consideration of gifts is especially important.

That’s because, in Texas, all property owned at the time of divorce, including any gifts, must be classified as either separate or community property.

Community property is jointly owned by the married couple and divisible by the judge at the time of divorce. Separate property, however, is not. The court cannot take away separate property in a divorce.

  1. Gifts do not fall under the community presumption.

The general rule is that all property received during a marriage is community property. Gifts, however, are one of the few exceptions. Unlike most property received, gifts are classified as separate property.

  1. The community estate cannot receive a gift.

A gift cannot be given to the community. If the gift is to one spouse or the other, it is the separate property of that spouse. If the gift is made to a married couple, the property is one-half the separate property of each spouse.

  1. Income from a gift belongs to the community estate – usually.

If a gift is received that generates income, even though the gift is separate property, the income generated from the gift is community property. So although a divorce court cannot take away the gift, it can divide and take away some or all of the income. Income includes interest, dividends, and rental income.

  1. A gift from one spouse to the other includes the income – probably

The rule stated above in #3 does change a little bit when it is one spouse giving something to the other. According to the Texas Family Code, Section 3.005, “If one spouse makes a gift of property to the other spouse, the gift is presumed to include all the income and property that may arise from that property.” The presumption can be challenged, however, so if you are giving something to your spouse that you want to not follow the presumption, you need to make sure that you have some written evidence of your actual intent.

To discuss your case with the attorneys of the Beal Law Firm, call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. You can find us on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

The Many Parts of a Texas Divorce

In a previous post, we discussed the procedural parts of a Texas Divorce. In this post, the goal is to identify the substantive parts of a Texas Divorce.

Divorces are interesting types of cases, because unlike most cases, they have discrete parts, each of which needs their own jurisdictional analysis. That is, a court may have the power to deal with one part of the case, but not with another.

Not all cases are the same, so some of these parts may not be present in your case, but since there is a great deal of misunderstanding about how divorces work, it is a good idea to at least be aware of them, to be sure that they don’t belong in your case.

1. The Status of the Marriage

The Status of the Marriage is both the most important and least important part of the case – it is the judicial determination of whether the parties are divorced. As long as one or both parties is a resident of Texas, the court generally has the power to make this determination. Since Texas is a “no-fault” State, the court can grant the divorce without reference to either party being at fault. But, either or both parties can allege that the divorce should be granted on “fault” grounds, such as adultery or cruelty.

2. Division of Property

This part of the case involves how the marital estate is divided. The court does not have the power to take either party’s separate property as a part of the division of property. The court does have the power to divide the community estate, as long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the parties. Understanding personal jurisdiction can be tricky, so if either party does not reside in Texas, it is important to get competent legal advice on this topic.

As a part of the division of property, the court may assign the payment of debts, but it is important to note that the court cannot adversely affect the rights of third-party creditors. That is, if the creditor could sue you before the divorce if the debt was not paid, then the creditor will be able to sue you after the marriage if the debt is not paid – there is nothing you can agree to or that the court can order that can change that.

3. Custody

Custody is a legal word with a fuzzy definition. Basically, if there has been a child born or adopted during the marriage that is still a minor or disabled, or both, the court will need to deal with issues of conservatorship, geographic restriction, rights, duties, and possession of the child.

There are a great many presumptions that aid in the predictability of this section, but unlike property division, a jury can be used to decide the ultimate issues of custody, i.e. Primary Conservatorship and Geographic Restriction.

The analysis of whether the Court has the power to issue a valid, binding custody order can be very confusing. The answers are found in a complicated piece of legislation known as the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (the “UCCJEA”).

4. Child Support

Although often even courts treat Child Support as though it is a simple mathematical analysis, under the family code it is not. The statutory presumption is that guideline child support should be used, but there are a great many other factors that the court should consider.

See this previous post for a discussion of those other factors.

5. Spousal Maintenance

Texas has had contractual alimony available for a long time, if not forever. Contractual alimony, however, is only obtained when one party or the other agrees to provide cash flow to the other after divorce.

Spousal Maintenance is the term that is used for the type of post-divorce, non-child-support, non-property division payments that the court can order over the objection of the soon-to-be-paying party. In order to get Spousal Maintenance, the party seeking it must prove a great many things, but the starting point is that he or she must fit in one of three categories:

  1. Be disabled;
  2. Be the victim of domestic abuse; or
  3. Be married for over ten years and not be able to provide for his or her minimum reasonable needs.

6.Tort or Other Cause of Action Against Your Spouse

Although many people don’t realize it, you can sue your spouse, in addition to divorcing him or her. To do so successfully, there must be a valid cause of action. That is, the spouse must have done something that amounts to a Tort or other type of cause of action.

Viable causes of action include assault, battery, false imprisonment, breach of fiduciary duty, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (also known as intentional infliction of mental anguish).

Whether one spouse should sue the other is a very complicated question, and competent legal advice is critical in making a decision on how to proceed.

To discuss your case with the attorneys of the Beal Law Firm, call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. You can find us on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

Understanding No-Fault Divorce in Texas

Fault grounds still exist.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding about “no-fault” divorce. Many people believe that the concept of fault has been eliminated from divorces. That could not be further from the truth.

The passage of the “no-fault” law years ago changed the requirement to allege fault, it did not change the right to allege fault.

Prior to the creation of “no-fault” divorce, in order to obtain a divorce in the State of Texas, one or both parties had to accuse the other of some conduct that amounted to fault. And then the accusing party had to prove it – assuming that the accused did not admit it. The common grounds for fault-based divorces included adultery, mental cruelty, physical cruelty, and abandonment.

The reason for a fault-based system was that the State took the position that it had a vested interest in keeping married people married. If you could not prove a fault ground, the State did not require you to continue to live together, but it required you to stay married. That requirement kept people from being able to marry other people, because doing so would amount to the crime of bigamy.

Now, Texas Family Code Section 6.001 states that “the court may grant a divorce without regard to fault, if the marriage has become insupportable because of discord or conflict of personalities that destroys the legitimate ends of the marital relationship and prevents any reasonable expectation of reconciliation.”

As long as one party of the other alleges that the marriage has become “insupportable,” there is no requirement to allege or prove fault in a divorce. The State looks at marriages almost like a business partnership, when it comes to the right to dissolve it.

If you and a friend went into the business of selling donuts, and after a couple of years your friend decided that he or she did not want to sell donuts anymore, you could not make your friend stay in the donut business. Similarly, in this day and age, if your spouse no longer wants to stay in the marriage, you cannot make him or her stay. If your spouse wants a divorce, he or she is entitled to a divorce.

But, the fact that there is no requirement to allege fault does not mean that fault cannot be alleged. Either or both parties to a divorce can still allege that the break-up of the marriage was due to the fault of the other party. While the Family Code still contains the same list of fault grounds that it used to, typically people now limit the accusations to adultery or cruelty.

So what is the benefit of pleading fault? If it is not needed to get the divorce, why bring it up?

One reason to plead fault is that in a divorce, there is no requirement that the property be divided evenly. The court is required to make a “just and right, equitable division” of the property, and one of the factors that the court can consider is the fault of either party. If one party is guilty of adultery or cruelty, that party may not only get less than 50% of the community estate, he or she may get as little as 40%, 35%, or even less. In fact one Texas Judge has been quoted as saying, “If I find out that a husband has been guilty of actual, physical abuse, I’ll take away everything he’s got, including his dreams!”

While, according to Texas law, even in the most egregious of cases the court cannot take someone’s separate property, it is possible that the court can deprive an individual of the use of his or her separate property for some period of time, under certain circumstances. In one famous case, the court allowed the ex-wife and children to live in the separate property home of the ex-husband, as additional child support.

To find out more about how the system works, call the Beal Law Firm at 817.919.3616 or 214.414.0418, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. You can find us on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

Divorce: How are stock options and restricted stock handled?

According to Texas law, at the time of divorce, all community property is divisible. Moreover, all property owned by the parties in a divorce is presumed community until and unless proven to be separate property.

The court has no jurisdiction to divest either party of his or her separate property. Jurisdiction means power. Divest means take. So the court has no power to take anyone’s separate property from them.

Employer Provided Stock Options and Employer Provided Restricted Stock that are owned at the time of divorce are divisible, just like any other property. The community portion is divisible, the separate portion is not.

So, in order to determine how much of the Options or Stock is divisible, you must first determine how much of it is separate and how much of it is community.

The Texas Family Code explains how to perform the calculations to find out what is separate and what is community.

Pursuant to Section 3.007 of the Code:

A spouse who is a participant in an employer-provided stock option plan or an employer-provided restricted stock plan has a separate property interest in the options or restricted stock granted to the spouse under the plan as follows:

if the option or stock was granted to the spouse before marriage but required continued employment during marriage before the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed, the spouse’s separate property interest is equal to the fraction of the option or restricted stock in which:

the numerator is the sum of

the period from the date the option or stock was granted until the date of marriage; and

if the option or stock also required continued employment following the date of dissolution of the marriage before the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed, the period from the date of dissolution of the marriage until the date the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed;

and

the denominator is the period from the date the option or stock was granted until the date the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed; and

if the option or stock was granted to the spouse during the marriage but required continued employment following the date of dissolution of the marriage before the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed, the spouse’s separate property interest is equal to the fraction of the option or restricted stock in which

the numerator is the period from the date of dissolution of the marriage until the date the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed; and

the denominator is the period from the date the option or stock was granted until the date the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed.

The Code also provides that the computation must be done separately “for each component of the benefit requiring varying periods of employment before the grant could be exercised or the restriction removed.”

So basically, the value of the Options or Stock that is attributable to the period before marriage or after marriage is separate property. The amount attributable to the time that a person is married is community. These concepts are completely consistent with the analysis done for all property to determine whether its character is separate or community.

If you would like to discuss your situation with the attorneys at the Beal Law Firm, please call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418 or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. You can find us on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

Collaborative Divorce: Fast Five Questions and Answers

There are lots of things about Collaborative Divorce that are misunderstood. These Five Questions and Answers should clear up some of the more common misconceptions:

1. Can my spouse and I do a Collaborative Divorce without lawyers?

No. The term Collaborative Divorce does not mean the same thing as Amicable Divorce, Agreed Divorce, or Uncontested Divorce. A Collaborative Divorce may in fact be amicable. If it ends with an Agreed Decree, then it is an agreed divorce. And a Collaborative Divorce may be more or less uncontested – for more on that see this earlier Blog post.

But, a Collaborative Divorce in Texas is by definition a case that is conducted pursuant to the Collaborative Family Law Act, which is Title 1A of the Texas Family Code. Section 15.052 of Title 1A states that a Collaborative Divorce is one “in which parties: (A) sign a collaborative family law participation agreement; and (B) are represented by collaborative family law lawyers.”

So, when a potential client comes to an attorney and says, “I have been doing a Collaborative Divorce with my husband/wife and his/her lawyer, but now I think I need to get a lawyer,” the potential client is at best mistaken as to what is going on, and at worst being defrauded.

2. Do we have to use Neutrals in our Collaborative law case?

The traditional Texas model for Collaborative Divorce is two lawyers, plus two neutrals – a Financial Professional and a Mental Health Professional.

The Financial Professional is tasked with gathering and assembling the financial information of the parties, helping the parties work on budgeting, and offering expertise on various financial matters.

The Mental Health Professional is not a part of the process to psychoanalyze the parties. His or her job is to help the parties develop a parenting plan, if there are children involved, conduct the meetings that are a part of the Collaborative Process, and offer suggestions for matters that will help meet the parties’ personal goals, e.g. closure with step-children.

But, there is no requirement that neutrals be used. Or that both neutrals be used. If the parties and the attorneys agree, a Collaborative Divorce can proceed without one or both of the traditional neutrals.

3. Do I have to use an attorney from the list that my spouse gave me?

No. Although many Collaborative Divorce attorneys are members of “Practice Groups,” not all are. Moreover, there is no requirement that a husband or wife choose a Collaborative attorney from the list provided by his or her spouse.

There is no requirement to choose an attorney from any Practice Group and the choice of an attorney is completely up to the party.

4. Will a Collaborative case be faster than a non-collaborative case?

There is no way of knowing. A collaborative divorce may be faster than a litigation case, but it may also take more time. A non-collaborative divorce must last for at least 60 days, unless a waiver is obtained based upon family violence. How much longer a case lasts depends upon whether the parties are able to settle and when. For more on the stages of a divorce, see this prior blog post.

It is unlikely that a Collaborative Divorce will take less than 60 days, but many Collaborative cases end far earlier than many hotly contested divorces.

5. Will a Collaborative Divorce be less expensive than a non-collaborative divorce?

Once again, there is no way of knowing. Collaborative Divorces involve a series of meetings with at least two attorneys, and probably two neutrals billing at hourly rates.

Prior to each meeting, there may be some telephone calls between the attorneys and their clients and between the Team of attorneys and neutrals – all billed at hourly rates. There may be pre-meetings of the Team before the Joint meetings of everyone, and there is typically a Team debriefing period after the meeting – all billed at hourly rates.

Given that it is unlikely that a Collaborative Divorce would be wrapped up without at least three or four lengthy meetings, it’s not hard to see that there may be considerable cost to a Collaborative Case.

But, given that a non-collaborative case can involve lengthy hearings with a considerable number of hours spent in preparation by both sides, and can sometimes involve both parties hiring financial and/or mental health experts, it’s easy to see that in some cases Collaborative Divorce is much less expensive than non-collaborative divorce.

Bonus Question:

6. Is Collaborative Divorce only appropriate if there is no conflict?

No. Collaborative cases can have much of the same angst that traditional cases have – sometimes more. A Collaborative Divorce has many benefits that traditional cases do not, and they can be successfully completed even where the parties have serious disagreements and issues.

To discuss your case and whether it would be a good candidate to handle in the Collaborative Model, call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418. You can also write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com or find us on our website www.dfwdivorce.com. We are Beal Law Firm, PLLC.

Common Law Marriage: How do I know if I have one?

In Texas, there are two ways to get married, and two ways to get unmarried. You can be ceremonially married or common law married. To get unmarried – regardless of how you got married – you need a divorce or death.

There is no such thing as a common law divorce.

There are circumstances that would seem to warrant a finding of common law divorce, but they don’t. For example, if two married persons cease living together, haven’t seen each other in a couple of decades, haven’t spoken to or communicated with each other in decades, and have no property which they consider joint, many people would feel that their status is tantamount to divorce. It’s not.

Once again, there is no such thing as common law divorce.

So, it’s best to know when you are married, since being married means that everything you own is presumed to be community property, if you die or end up in a divorce.

A common law marriage arises when three things have happened:

  1. The two people live together;
  2. The two people represent to others that they are married; and
  3. Both people have agreed to be married.

Think of people living 100 years ago out in the remotest part of west Texas. There had to be a way for them to get married, since having sexual relations or living “in sin,” without the benefit of marriage, was considered taboo.

Common law marriage provided people that did not have a preacher or courthouse handy a way to make themselves “legal.”

It all made sense back then. Whether it does now is a question for another day. Regardless, the law still exists.

If you live together, even for a brief period of time, and represent to others that you are married – by, for example, introducing the other person as your wife to new people you meet, filing joint tax returns, etc. – then the only question is whether the two of you have agreed that you are married.

If neither person claims that there was an agreement of marriage, the issue may never arise. In family court, however, the problem can arise when the couple breaks up, if the first two requirements have been met. Then, the one that would most benefit from a finding that they are married sometimes claims that they are.

If the court is convinced that all three requirements have been met, then the break up becomes a divorce. And divorces have all sorts of consequences with respect to division of property, spousal maintenance, etc.

To discuss any of this with a Beal Law Firm attorney contact us at lawyers@dfwdivorce or call us at 214.414.0418 or 817.261.4333. Our website is www.dfwdivorce.com