In Texas, the terms of the final divorce decree form a legally-binding contract that courts expect to be strictly followed because it is also the order of the court. After divorce, however, sometimes circumstances change in ways that affect either party’s ability to continue complying with the document as written. Section 9.003 of the Texas Family Code grants the divorce courts with the sole authority to enforce the decisions of the final divorce decree. Depending on the issues involved, sometimes a court can modify or change a prior court order.
Quite often, divorced parties call on the Dallas divorce lawyers at GoransonBain Ausley after they’ve attempted to take matters in their own hands. Avoiding the courts may seem like a simple solution to addressing life’s changes, but it typically creates a more complex and painful situation than taking proper legal avenues from the start.
The Two Main Reasons For Informally Changing the Terms of Divorce
Occasionally, marriages break up simply because the spouses have grown apart; however, many marriages end because of substantial areas of conflict. Once couples go their separate ways, they generally need to maintain a degree of contact — particularly when they have children. When they disregard the terms of divorce, they typically have two very different reasons:
- Making informal changes: Many couples maintain a cordial relationship. When changed circumstances arise, such as when the loss of a job temporarily prevents child or spousal support payments, they may agree to stop payments until those payments can be made up later. They see this arrangement as an attempt to maintain the spirit, if not the letter, of the final divorce decree.
- Retribution: At the other end of the spectrum, one spouse may adjust his or her own behavior when the other spouse fails to meet the obligations of the final divorce decree. It is common, for example, for a parent to withhold child visitation rights until the other parent pays outstanding child support.
Regardless of whether ex-spouses have an honorable or a contentious intention, Texas law prohibits any informal agreement (for example, the temporary suspension of child support) or unilateral actions (for example, withholding visitation) unless it is allowed based on the terms of the final divorce decree. Even friendly agreements can go wrong, such as if the out-of-work spouse gains a new job and begins to make payments — without repaying back support funds.
Modification and Enforcement Issues Belong in Court
It is important to understand that negotiated divorce settlements can include provisions for changing life circumstances, but even in these cases, it can make sense to seek legal advice to help ensure you remain within the boundaries of the final divorce decree.
Considering that Texas judges have a significant degree of latitude when enforcement cases come before them, non-compliant ex-spouses can potentially face prison time, although that consequence is somewhat rare.
A better approach is to seek modification of the original order or find another legal resolution. A call to GoransonBain Ausley can make a difference to the outcome of your case. Contact us to learn your legal options.