Limitations on the enforcement of “voluntary” spousal support obligations
Dalton v. Dalton, 551 S.W.3d 126 (Tex. 2018)
Husband and wife entered an agreement in Oklahoma for spousal support, which an Oklahoma court approved. Husband later filed for divorce in Texas. The Texas court gave the Oklahoma order full faith and credit. The court then granted the divorce, incorporating the parties' agreements as approved in the Oklahoma order. The court issued a wage-withholding for the monthly support-alimony obligations. It later entered a "QDRO" making up for some of his arrears by assigning wife an additional interest in his retirement accounts. The former husband argues that the court cannot enforce his spousal-support obligation by wage withholding or by an assignment of his retirement benefits to his former wife.
Chapter 8 of the Family Code allows spousal-maintenance awards only under limited circumstances. The former spouse must be "eligible" to receive spousal maintenance; the "duration" and "amount" of the payments must not exceed specified limits; the obligation must automatically terminate upon certain events; and the court must consider a wide variety of factors to "determine the nature, amount, duration, and manner of periodic payments." There is a difference between court-ordered spousal-maintenance awards under Chapter 8 and court-approved voluntary obligations under Chapter 7. Chapter 8's enforcement provisions apply only to spousal-maintenance orders that a court enters "on the authority" of Chapter 8 and that meet that chapter's "other requirements." Texas law only permits wage withholding to enforce a court-ordered obligation that qualifies as "spousal maintenance" under Chapter 8.
In this case, the Oklahoma order does not qualify as maintenance, as it does not comply with Chapter 8's eligibility, duration, termination, and other requirements. Rather, the agreement required former husband to provide "support alimony" that falls outside of Chapter 8. This creates a debt that cannot be enforced by wage withholding, unless agreed by the parties. It matters not that the Oklahoma order is entitled to Full Faith & Credit; Texas law will control the procedures and remedies available to enforce the support obligation. Therefore, the wage withholding was not appropriate.
The court also abused its discretion by issuing a QDRO. This order enforced the "support alimony" obligation of the Oklahoma order, assigning to wife additional interests in the retirement accounts that had not previously been divided. Chapter 9 of the Family Code authorizes a QDRO to effectuate previous property divisions, but it does not provide authority for the trial court's order at issue.