The Supreme Court addressed a matter of vital concern for many parents in the state of Texas—whether payments other than to a child-support registry will count toward discharging a court-ordered child-support obligation. The Court held that on the facts of this case, in a child-support enforcement proceeding, payments made directly to a child’s school, rather than to the court-ordered registry, will count in the determination of arrearages. This critical family law issue yielded four separate opinions—the majority, a concurrence, and two dissents. What follows will focus on the key takeaways from the majority ruling. But there will be much discussion of all the opinions among the family law bar.

Ochsner v. Ochsner
Supreme Court of Texas, No. 14-0638 (June 24, 2016)
Justice Willett (Opinion): Justice Guzman (Concurring); Justice Johnson (Dissent); Justice Boyd (Dissent)

The parties’ divorce decree ordered Father to pay for his daughter’s private school, at first directly to the school and then, if she changed schools, to the child-support registry. When his daughter changed schools, however, Father continued to make the payments directly to the new school, and in fact paid $20,000 more than what the decree ordered. Ten years later, Mother sued to enforce payment of the amounts not paid through the registry.

The trial court gave Father credit for payments made directly to the school. The court of appeals did not, holding that the trial court could not consider payments made by Father that did not comply with the terms of the decree, i.e., that payments be made through the registry.

The Texas Supreme Court, in a decision marked by common sense, deconstructed the meaning of Texas Family Code Chapter §157.263(b-1) by looking to the dictionary meaning of key terms used in this section, and held that in a child-support enforcement action, the trial court may consider evidence of direct payments when confirming child-support arrearages.

KEY TAKEAWAYS:

  • The Supreme Court distinguished enforcement of a child-support order under Texas Family Code Chapter 157 from a proceeding to establish a child-support obligation under Texas Family Code Chapter 154.
  • Under Chapter 154, the trial court can determine the amount of the child-support obligation, and specify the manner in which the payments can be made. While payments made pursuant to a wage withholding order must go through the registry per Texas Family Code § 154.004(b), the Court noted there was nothing in that section requiring that voluntary payments must do so.
  • There is nothing in Chapter 157 that requires a court to only consider payments made through the registry in determining if there is a child-support arrearage, and if so, in confirming the amount of that arrearage. The trial court has discretion to consider a range of evidence, including direct payments to the other parent or a third party in making those determinations.
  • In doing so, the court is not modifying the original child-support obligation, which is prohibited by the Texas Family Code in an enforcement action, but instead making a factual determination of what payments have been made by the parent to discharge that obligation.
  • The Court was not abandoning its prior ruling in Williams v. Patton that private agreements between the parties to reduce or eliminate the court-ordered child-support obligation are not enforceable. In this case, the issue was not missed payments, but payments that had been made, albeit not in accordance with the support order. While a court cannot consider an agreement that downgrades the child support obligation, it may consider one that has the opposite effect.

POTENTIAL EFFECT:
Big picture, this decision could have widespread implications for parents in Texas, as child support is one of the most frequently litigated issues in family law. The Court noted that the dissenting Justices’ concern that this decision could encourage gamesmanship and “he said-she said” in enforcement matters; but that concern should not impede the Court in ruling on the meaning of the enforcement statutes. The Supreme Court observed that the trial courts in Texas were up to the task of “ferreting … out” such concerns, as these are factual determinations they make every day.

The Court confined its decision to the facts presented, and made clear it was not holding that tuition payments always qualify as child support. It also cautioned the ruling should not be taken as encouragement to make direct payments outside the registry. The Court recognized that doing that could complicate matters, and create risks regarding proof, because under other circumstances a court could exercise it discretion not to credit such payments in determining the arrearage amount.

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, future child-support enforcement actions in Texas will now be even more fact-intensive for trial courts exercising their discretion whether to credit outside payments against the child support obligation.