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TX high asset divorceIn high asset divorce cases, the disposition of real property is often a major sticking point between the estranged spouses. When dealing with large parcels of commercial or agricultural land in particular, it may be necessary to actually subdivide the property. And even after the divorce becomes final, there may still be outstanding issues related to the property that lead to additional litigation.

Ex-Husband Held in Breach of Contract Over Post-Divorce Land Sale

The Texas Second District Court of Appeals in Fort Worth recently addressed one long-running dispute between two parties who divorced five years ago. The former husband and former wife in this case held 300 acres of land in Parker County as community property. Under the terms of their divorce decree, the former wife received 123 acres from that parcel.

Two years later, the former wife signed a contract with the former husband to sell back 32 acres. The contract included a written description of the land, together with an aerial photograph obtained via Google Earth. Under the contract, the former husband agreed to pay a $35,000 earnest-money deposit, which he would forfeit to the former wife in the event of a breach.

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TX divorce lawyerA high asset divorce does not necessarily involve contested litigation. In many cases, the divorcing spouses are eager to resolve their outstanding issues and end their marriage as quickly as possible. To facilitate this, Texas law does allow for mediated settlement agreements (MSA).

An MSA is a legally binding contract signed by both parties. A mediator serves as a neutral facilitator who assists the parties, and their attorneys, in reaching an agreement. But unlike an arbitrator, the mediator does not have the legal authority to force a decision. The spouses are still free to abandon mediation at any time and take their case to litigation.

Texas Supreme Court Clarifies Law Governing Mediated Settlement Agreements

The Texas Supreme Court recently addressed an important legal question regarding MSAs: Are such agreements enforceable if they are signed before either spouse actually files for divorce?

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TX divorce lawyerThere are two questions that often come up in high asset divorce cases: First, how does a court properly characterize “community” versus “separate” property? Second, to what extent does the other party's fault in causing the divorce affect the court's division of community property?

Court: Judge Allowed to Award Ex-Wife Greater Share of Community Property Based on Ex-Husband's Infidelity

To give you some idea of how the courts address these questions, here is a recent decision from the Texas 1st District Court of Appeals. In this case, a former husband appealed a divorce judgment that awarded most of the couple's community property to the former wife. On appeal, the husband challenged both the unequal distribution and the overall characterization of some of the property.

The couple was previously married for 10 years. The former wife filed for divorce on grounds of infidelity and cruel treatment. The former husband apparently did not challenge these allegations. The trial court ultimately granted the divorce on grounds of infidelity and cruel treatment.

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TX high asset divorceOne issue that often comes up in a high asset divorce is how to properly value the “net resources” of a spouse for purposes of calculating child support payments. Texas law requires a court to take into account a wide range of resources, including such things as retirement benefits or annuities payable to the parent required to provide support. That said, there are some forms of income, such as “return of principal or capital” that are not considered part of the parent's net resources.

Texas Appeals Courts Reach Different Conclusions on Scope of Annuities Definition

With respect to annuities, there is some disagreement among Texas appeals courts as to whether certain types of annuities may be excluded from a net resources calculation. This issue came up in an October 9 decision from the Fourth District Court of Appeals in San Antonio. In that case, the Fourth District declined to follow a 2009 holding from the 10th District Court of Appeals in Waco, which raised a similar issue.

Here is a brief explanation of the San Antonio court's decision. A husband and wife received a divorce. Prior to the marriage, the husband was injured in a work-related accident. This led to a settlement agreement with the husband's employer. The settlement itself was structured as an annuity that will pay the husband $6,970 per month until his death or June 2044, whichever occurs first.

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TX high asset divorceIn a high asset divorce, one of the most critical issues is the division of retirement accounts. When one spouse earns a pension during the course of a marriage, it is considered community property. This means any such pension is subject to division as part of the overall divorce proceedings.

Austin Court: Divorce Invalidated Previous Designation of Ex-Spouse as TRS Pension Beneficiary

Pension plans require a covered employee to designate a “beneficiary,” who will receive any remaining pension benefits upon the employee's death. Typically when an employee gets divorced, the court will issue Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs), which instructs the pension plan administrator on how to divide any accounts or benefits. A QDRO also serves to override any prior beneficiary designation that conflicts with its terms.

Even without a QDRO, however, the divorce itself may automatically revoke a prior designation of a now-former spouse as beneficiary. A recent decision from a state appeals court in Austin, Jones v. Teacher Retirement System, provides a helpful illustration of this rule. In this case, a former employee of Texas Tech passed away in 2015. He had a pension with the Texas Retirement System (TRS).

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TX high asset divorceWhen it comes to a high asset divorce in Texas, both parties need to take care when selling or disposing of anything that might be considered marital property. In other words, do not sell all of your jewelry or expensive electronics and keep the money hidden from your estranged spouse. If you do this, a court may consider such actions “fraudulent” and penalize you when making a final division of the marital estate.

Judge Orders Ex-Wife to Repay Ex-Husband for “Constructive Fraud”

Now, selling assets that partially belong to you may not be fraudulent in the traditional sense of that word. But Texas law does consider it a “fraud on the community.” This is another way of saying one spouse breached their fiduciary duty to the other spouse.

Here is a real-world illustration of what we are talking about. In a recent Texas divorce case, a husband filed for divorce against his wife after eight years of marriage. The couple had no children. In his divorce petition, the husband alleged his wife had sold more than $50,000 worth of “household goods, furniture, and electronics” acquired during the marriage without his consent. Basically, the husband said he returned home one day to find his house “empty.” The house itself was the husband's separate property – he acquired it before the marriage – but everything else was considered community property.

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TX high asset lawyerPrenuptial agreements are a common legal tool used to avoid protracted litigation, particularly in the event of a high-asset divorce. Of course, when a divorce proceeding actually begins, it is not unusual for one spouse to challenge the validity of the prenuptial agreement. This is why it is essential to follow certain procedures when drafting the agreement initially.

Houston Court Rejects Wife's Challenge to Prenuptial Agreement

A recent decision from a Texas appeals court illustrates how to successfully defend a prenuptial agreement from such a challenge.

This case involves a couple that initially met through a dating website. The future husband lived in Houston, while the future wife lived in Vietnam. Even before the two met in person, the husband said he "wanted his future wife to sign a prenuptial agreement to protect his assets," according to court records.

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TX divorce lawyerBecause Texas is a community property state, divorcing couples are usually required to divide all assets acquired during the marriage itself in an equitable manner. In most cases, both spouses retain access to these funds and assets while the divorce is pending, so that they can pay reasonable expenses, such as mortgage payments, utility bills, and childcare costs. Spouses who step outside of these limits could be found to have wasted marital assets, an act that is not taken lightly by divorce courts. If you are preparing for or have already filed for divorce and believe that your own spouse is wasting marital assets, you should contact an experienced high asset divorce lawyer who can ensure that your assets are protected.

What Qualifies as Wasting Marital Assets?

Known as dissipation, the wasting of marital assets during a divorce is prohibited under Texas law, which makes it unlawful to dissipate marital property by:

  • Taking out a loan that has not been authorized by the other spouse
  • Spending marital funds on vacations
  • Making expensive purchases without the other spouse’s approval
  • Withdrawing large sums of money from joint accounts
  • Giving extravagant gifts to friends and family members
  • Gambling large sums

Spouses who discover that their significant other has engaged in this type of waste in order to deprive the other party of an equal share of those assets upon divorce may have legal recourse, so it is important for individuals who find themselves in this position, to speak with an attorney as soon as possible.

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