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File Breach of Contract Suit In Any District Court

Houston Court of Appeals holds that any district court has jurisdiction to hear breach of contract actions based on provisions in a divorce decree. Chavez v. McNeely ___ S.W.3d ___, 2009 WL 1331854 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2009, no pet. h.) (5/14/09)

Facts: In 6/01, husband and wife divorced. On 6/29/01, district court entered an “Agreed Final Decree of Divorce.” That agreement required wife to provide as much “as possible” for her husband’s needs, “limited only by her personal financial situation.” In 7/03, husband sued wife for breaching that provision in same district court. In 4/09, husband nonsuited his case and re-filed in Waller County. Trial court rendered judgment for husband on breach of contract. Wife appealed, claiming that trial court lacked jurisdiction and that the agreement was unenforceable.

Held: Reversed and rendered.

Court of Appeals Opinion: Trial court is a court of general jurisdiction under Art. 5, § 8 of Texas Constitution. Therefore, there is a presumption that it has jurisdiction unless exclusive jurisdiction had been conferred to the district court that rendered the decree. Under TFC § 9.001, a party “may request enforcement” of a divorce by filing suit in the court that rendered the decree. “May” is permissive, not mandatory. Therefore, the original district court did not have exclusive jurisdiction. Contracts are enforceable only if they are definite enough that a court can understand the parties’ obligations. Courts have held terms such as “as much as needed” and “fair market value” to be too indefinite to enforce. A requirement that wife provide as much as possible is also too indefinite to enforce. Accordingly, trial court erred in rendering judgment for husband.

Interesting distinction in Chapter 9 – that you can file a breach of contract action for enforcement of the divorce decree in a court other than the court that rendered the decree. I, a board certified family law specialist in Texas, wonder if this case will have the effect of encouraging forum shopping?

This commentary originally appeared in the June 2009 Section Report of the State Bar of Texas Family Law Section, where I serve as guest editor.