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Texas Supreme Court Holds Child Support Obligor Must be Current on All Child Support to Escape Contempt Under Texas Family Code 157.162(d)

In an opinion delivered on March 8, 2013 and authored by Justice Lehrmann, the Texas Supreme Court lent clarity to the Family Code’s “purging” provision (Texas Family Code 157.162(d) which allows a respondent to escape contempt of court if he produces evidence at the hearing showing he is current on his child support). According to the Texas Supreme Court, the plain language of Texas Family Code 157.162(d) is the best guide to the statute’s meaning and confirms that the purging provision is only activated if an obligor is current on all child support obligations at the time of the enforcement hearing, not just those pled in the motion to enforce.

In the underlying proceedings arising out of Tarrant County, Father was held in contempt and sentenced to 174 days of jail (to be served on the 2nd and 4th weekends of each month) for failing to pay his child support as ordered. While Father paid all the past due payments that were alleged as violations in the motion for enforcement by the date of the hearing, he remained delinquent on his child support payments that arose between the time the motion was filed and the date of the hearing. Father claimed he properly invoked the purging provision and, thus, could not be held in contempt. The Fort Worth Court of Appeals agreed with Father. So Mother and the Office of the Attorney General of Texas took this case to the Supreme Court.

According to the Texas Supreme Court, the trial judge was right — Father could not avoid a contempt finding by invoking the purging provision because he was not current on all his court-ordered child support due at the time of the contempt hearing:

“The court may not find a respondent in contempt of court for failure to pay child support if the respondent appears at the hearing with . . . evidence . . . showing that the respondent is current in the payment of child support as ordered by the court.” TEX. FAM. CODE § 157.162(d). We are called upon to interpret this section of the Texas Family Code, which provides a mechanism by which an obligor who has violated a child support order may avoid a contempt finding. We hold that this language is unambiguous and means what it says: an obligor must be current on court-ordered child support payments due at the time of the enforcement hearing, regardless of whether those payments have been pled in the motion for enforcement, in order to invoke section 157.162(d) to avoid a finding of contempt where contemptuous conduct has otherwise been properly pled and established. Holding otherwise would contravene the statute’s plain language and allow a recalcitrant obligor to escape a valid contempt finding by paying only those payments pled in a motion to enforce while continuing to disobey the prior order before the enforcement hearing. We therefore hold that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in entering a contempt order in this case. We conditionally grant relief and instruct the court of appeals to vacate its judgment, thereby reinstating the trial court’s contempt order.

Whether you are a child support obligor, obligee, or an attorney representing either party, this is an important case to keep in mind in all child support enforcement matters.

Click here to read the opinion: