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Divided Texas Supreme Court Rules Wife Entitled to Entire Marital Home Following Husband’s Child Abuse

Back in February, we discussed a pending Texas Supreme Court case involving the division of community property in a case where the husband committed multiple acts of sexual abuse against the wife’s daughters. A lower court held that despite the husband’s actions–for which he is currently serving a 60-year prison term–it would not be “just and right” under Texas divorce law to award the wife 100 percent of the marital home. Instead, the Court awarded the husband a 20 percent interest in the property.

Egregious Abuse or Insufficient Evidence of Husband’s Contribution?

By a vote of 5-4, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court. The five-justice majority could not agree on the reasoning for this decision, however, leaving the Court without a single controlling opinion. Effectively, this means the wife in this case will likely get 100 percent of the home, but it is unclear what precedent this sets for future cases involving similar facts.

A three-justice plurality led by Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht concluded that it would not be “just and right” to allow a spouse to keep part of a family home when he was previously “convicted of using the home to sexually abuse his stepdaughter.” The Chief Justice was careful to note that acts of “family violence,” in and of themselves, do not justify depriving a spouse of “an interest in all or even a specific part of the community estate.” And the Supreme Court has made it clear in prior cases that the trial courts should not use the division of community property to “punish” one spouse for their fault in breaking up the marriage. But the Chief Justice said the “egregious” nature of this husband’s conduct in this case–i.e., that he sexually abused his stepdaughters for many years, he did so in the family home, and he was later convicted of criminal charges related to the abuse–all compelled reversing the 20 percent award.

Justice John P. Devine, writing for himself and one other justice, agreed with the Chief Justice’s conclusion but not his reasons. Instead, Justice Devine held that there was insufficient evidence in the record to support the husband’s claim he ever had any community property interest in the house to begin with. Originally, the couple lived in a home solely owned by the wife. After a fire destroyed that home, the wife used her insurance proceeds to purchase the present house. Justice Devine said it was unclear whether any portion of this insurance money was “burdened by the community,” or whether the husband added any “additional value” to the property.

Justice Jeff Boyd, writing for the four dissenting justices, argued the plurality was wrong because it substituted its own judgment of what is “just and right” for that of the lower court. And Justice Devine’s opinion was off-base because the wife never previously challenged the sufficiency of the evidence supporting the community property determination.

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The Court’s narrow, divided opinion indicates the difficulty of overturning trial court rulings with respect to divorce. Indeed, the Chief Justice’s plurality went to great lengths to emphasize the exceptional nature of the husband’s history of criminal sexual abuse to justify its decision to overturn the lower court’s ruling.

Most divorce cases will not involve horrendous acts of child abuse. But even in more conventional divorces the same “just and right” standard applies to the division of community property. If you need help from a Galveston divorce lawyer in fighting for what is just and right in your case, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today at (281) 280-0100.