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No Debtors Prison for Failing to Make Car Payment

A new case out of the Tyler Court of Appeals hold that a contempt order ordering imprisonment for failure to make car payments required by a divorce decree is void as imprisonment for debt. Also, the court holds that a contempt order may not be used to make substantive changes to divorce decree. In re White, ___ S.W.3d ___, 2009 WL 1153396 (Tex. App.—Tyler 2009, orig. proceeding) (4/30/09)

Facts: Father and mother divorced on 12/29/05. Trial court appointed both JMC but gave father exclusive right to choose child’s primary residence. Trial court required both parties to give 60 days’ notice of intended residence change and father to make payments on wife’s car. Trial court ordered that the father make child available at his residence for mother to pick up. In 2006, mother filed a motion for enforcement. Trial court found that father had fraudulently notified mother that he was moving, had not surrendered child to mother at court-scheduled times and had failed to make car payments. Trial court held father in contempt and ordered him confined for 30 days. It suspended based on father paying attorney’s fees and mother’s loss resulting from repossession of car. It also required that the delivery of the child be limited to Anderson County. Father paid funds into trial court’s registry and petitioned for mandamus for district court to vacate contempt finding.

Held: Mandamus granted as to the car payments and methods of access to child and denied for the other findings of contempt.

Tyler Court of Appeals Opinion: A court cannot order confinement on the basis of a debt. The car payments are part of a division of property; they are not assets held in trust. Therefore, the obligation to make payments is a debt even though a divorce decree created it. Since it is not enforceable by confinement, the trial court abused its discretion in the contempt order. The only way to make substantive changes to a divorce decree is under TFC §156.001. As limiting delivery to Anderson County was a substantive change, trial court abused its discretion in its probation order. The contempt finding for husband fraudulently claiming a change of address was justified.

Any Dallas family law attorney knows that our country was formed based on the concept that a party could not be imprisoned for failure to pay a debt. We do not have debtor’s prison in America! Just because a debt obligation is listed in a divorce decree makes it no less a debt. Family law attorneys should counsel their clients about the seeming lack of enforceability of the division of debts and structure the settlement of the estate in such a way that protects the enforceability of the court’s orders. For example, if the decree had left the car payment as wife’s obligation and ordered husband to pay maintenance in the amount of the car payment to wife, the wife would have had better enforceability options. Or, the car payment could have been awarded as additional child support. But, simply putting a debt pay-ment in the division of assets is insufficient to protect the client on whose behalf the payment is to be made.

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.