What Constitutes Telephone Harassment?

We often get told that someone is being harassed by telephone, but what does that really mean?

There is a great case, Perone v. Texas, which talks all about it in a criminal case context.  An ex-husband was convicted of harassment via telephone and then challenged the conviction based on, among other things, most of the communications were text messages and face time, not the traditional telephone calls.

Main points to see:

  1. The person commits the misdemeanor offense of harassment if, with intent to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another, (1) he causes the telephone of another to ring repeatedly or makes repeated telephone communications anonymously or in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another; or (2) he sends repeated electronic communications in a manner reasonably likely to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, embarrass, or offend another. (Texas Penal Code 42.07(a).
  2. Text messages fit this definition;
  3. FaceTime fits this definition;
  4. While some messages did relate to parenting logistics, others referred to the ex-husband’s dating and sexual activity and/or criticize his ex-wife;
  5. Intent can be determined by a jury (or Judge in the family law context as the trier of fact);
  6. Intent can be inferred by looking at the acts, words, or conduct of the accused, including the circumstances surrounding the acts;
  7. At least four phone calls in a little over a month were sufficient in a case that the calls were ‘repeated.’ (Blount v. State, 961 S.W.2d 282, 284 (Tex.App.-Houston[1st Dist.] 1997, pet. ref’d).

How does this relate to you?

Be ready to show that the intent fits the required intent (to harass, annoy, alarm, abuse, torment, or embarrass another), and how that actually occurred.  Be ready to show that the calls were repeated.  And be ready to show how it affected you!

 

Who Claims the Children as Dependents for Tax Purposes?

About this time of year, separated parents sometimes ask us who can claim the children on their taxes.  Many parents simply agree that the parent that would get the most benefit can claim the children.  Other parents have provisions in their orders directing the parties to claim or not to claim the children on their taxes.  But what about when there is no agreement?

The position the IRS takes is that the person having the children more than half the year can claim the children.  IRS Publication 504.

This means that the custodial parent, or the parent the children live with primarily, can claim the exemption.

So what happens if your orders say that one parent gets to claim the children and the other parent files first, claiming the children?  Realistically, the parent that should have been able to claim the children is going to have a hard time.  They will need to work with the IRS, the other party, and possibly an attorney well-versed in tax law to correct the issue.  The parent could also file an enforcement action or sue for the lost benefit.  The easiest way to avoid the issue?  Speak with the other parent, or make sure you file first.

What is a social study?

When parents can’t agree on who the kids will live with the Court will normally order a social study be conducted. This allows for a non-party, a trained professional, to look at the situation, the concerns of each party, and make a recommendation to the Court.  That recommendation is the social study.

This expert will interview each party as well as watch the interactions between the parties and the kids. They will normally also interview other children or adults that are living in the residences of the parties (should there be any) and do a home visit of each parties home to make sure it is appropriate / safe for the children.

Once the expert is done, they draft the social study. In some jurisdictions, only the attorneys and the judge will see the result.  This is because there have been times when parties have not liked the results of the social study and either share them with the children or even take out their frustrations on the children.

If you are going through a social study, be honest, participate fully, and make sure you comply fully with any requests. Talk with your attorney if you have questions.

A quick overview of the process in Dallas County can be found here.

Attorney’s Fees and Bankruptcy

What happens if one spouse, Husband, is ordered to pay the attorney’s fees of the other spouse, Wife, the Wife pays the attorney’s fees, requests reimbursement, then Husband files for bankruptcy?  Is the Wife out of luck?

This situation came up in In re: Jeffrey Todd Van Dermark, a 2008 case from the Bankruptcy Court in the Northern District of Texas.  Quick answer – the Husband had to pay the fees in full.  But read on, there’s more to it.

Quick Facts:

  • Husband and Wife divorced in Georgia, in 2006.
  • Wife had a contract with her attorneys and was required to pay them upon receipt of the invoice.
  • In the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce, Husband was ordered to pay $25,000.00 in attorney’s fees to Wife’s attorney.
  • Wife ended up paying the firm the $25,000.00, and turned to Husband to be repaid.
  • Husband filed for bankruptcy the next day, and tried to discharge the $25,000.00 debt.

Question for the Court

The question the Court was asked to answer was this – “Was the $25,000.00 a domestic support obligation under the bankruptcy code since Wife paid it and now demanded it from Husband, so protected as a priority claim?  Or was it not a domestic support obligation because the Husband was supposed to make the payment to Wife’s attorneys?”

The reason it matters is that if it was found to be a domestic support obligation, Husband would have to pay that $25,000.00 first (that claim has priority) and in full.  If not, the $25,000.00 claim would be reduced or fully discharged and Wife would be left out in the cold, having shelled out $25,000.00.

The argument provided by counsel was whether or not this claim was owed to Wife’s attorneys or to Wife under the domestic support obligation statute in the Bankruptcy code, and focused on Section 101(14A)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code, which states for a claim to be a domestic support obligation, it must be:

“a debt that accrues before, on, or after the date of the order for relief in a case under this title, including interest that accrues on that debt, as provided under applicable non bankruptcy law notwithstanding any other provision of this title  that is -

(A) owed to or recoverable by -

(i) a spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor or such child’s parent, legal guardian or responsible relative; or…”

The Court looked first to the bankruptcy code’s definition of ‘claim,’ and found that it is a ‘right to payment, whether or not such right is reduced to judgment, liquidated, unliquidated, fixed, contingent  matured, unmatured, disputed, undisputed, legal, equitable, secured or unsecured,” and that the definition was intentionally broad.  11 U.S.C. 101(5)(A); See In re Egleston, 448 F.3d 803, 812 (5th Cir. 2006).

The Court also turned to Georgia’s statutory definitions, since the Final Judgment and Decree of Divorce was out of Georgia, and found that it supported this claim as being owed to Wife, not just her attorney, per the language of the Decree of Divorce and under Georgia law.

Since that was the only argument asserted, and the Court found that the claim was, in fact, owed to and recoverable by Wife, the claim was a domestic support obligation.

Further Thoughts

One thing not argued, and which would have been interesting, is whether the Court believed it to fit the second requirement of a domestic support obligation, that the debt is

“(B) in the nature of alimony, maintenance, or support… of such spouse, former spouse, or child of the debtor or such child’s parent, without regard to whether such debt is expressly so designated;…”

- 11 U.S.C. 101(14A)(B)

I think the claim would have been denied that special status at that point.  The claim just does not fit the second part of the definition for a domestic support obligation.  Unfortunately, we will not know until a similar fact set occurs, the argument made, and an opinion issued.

Related Article:

Child Support and Bankruptcy

Pro Se Divorce Forms – Approved, but with Caution

The Texas Supreme Court recently approved a set of pro se divorce forms, with some pretty extensive disclaimers.  Specifically among those disclaimers is that these are only to be used for limited property, no children, no contest divorces.  Note that you should always sit down with someone that knows the process (a lawyer) and discuss your options.  Even the form’s disclaimer says that you should hire a lawyer.   In my experience, NOT hiring a lawyer tends to end up much more expensive when you have to get the order modified or corrected in the future.

Contracts with Lawyers (2 of 3)

Post two of three deals with flat fee contracts.  These are the simplest contracts.  You pay the lawyer a set amount for a legal matter and that is it – no variance for how successful or not the case turns out.

Flat fee contracts are typically used for situations where the legal work/time/fees needed is easily determined.  Common cases would be a no-contest divorce or a criminal matter.

The problem with flat fee contracts is that most are nonrefundable, and the contract spells out the terms of the representation.  If your case evolves outside of the contract, you lose that money and the representation.  For example, you pay a flat fee for a no-contest divorce, then it becomes contested.  At that point, your lawyer is free to step out because the contract states his representation is only for a no-contest divorce, which no longer applies.  Should a situation like that arise, most lawyers are happy to renegotiate the contract, but do not expect another flat fee!

As always, read the contract closely.  Each contract can vary so pay close attention to the terms.  If you have a question, ask!  Your lawyer would rather have you understand the contract and the process up front so that both of you know what to expect.

Retainer Contracts: Contracts with Lawyers (1 of 3)

Contingency Fee Contracts: Contracts with Lawyers (3 of 3)

How to Change Contractual Alimony

First, make sure the clause you are looking to change is contractual alimony and not spousal support. You can get an idea by looking at my post here.

If it is contractual, read on!

Changing contractual alimony in Texas is not easy. It follows contract law, so typically you need the written agreement of both parties.  You need to look carefully at the terms and conditions of the payments first, and see if there is a built in way to modify or terminate the payments.  If not or the terms do not apply, you are going to need to talk to the ex-spouse.

Why would an ex-spouse agree to change the spousal payments?  Sometimes out of the goodness of their hearts… or perhaps you offer them something of value – some ideas:

  1. More money over a longer period of time so that the payments are smaller;
  2. Less money but in a lump sum payment;
  3. Other property can be used as well; or
  4. An offer to pay off debts incurred jointly or by the other party during the marriage.

We have also seen other consideration given, like the addition/modification of a geographic residency requirement or exchange points.  In the end, the deal is up to the parties, with very few exceptions.

Another method would be to attack it as you would a contract.  This is much more involved, and more difficult.

If you have a question or want advise about a particular situation, email or call – we can help!

Wage Withholding for Contractual Alimony – No longer!

A Texas Court of Appeals held that a wage withholding order cannot be used to collect contractual alimony.  This adds yet another difference between court-ordered spousal maintenance and contractual alimony for both clients and lawyers to know about and discuss.

The full opinion can be found here.

The most interesting part is that this invalidates Texas Family Code §8.101(b) to the extent it authorized wage-withholding for contractual alimony.  The basis?  Unconstitutional under Texas Constitution Article XVI, §28, which states that current wages for personal service are not subject to garnishment, except for the enforcement of court-ordered child support or spousal maintenance!

Want to Change Child Support? Know the A, B, C’s…

Changing a child support payment (whether your’s or your ex’s) is certainly possible, just make sure that all the bases are covered.  Let’s look at the first group of steps needed, which can be found in Texas Family Code section 156.401(a).

  1. A “material and substantial change in circumstances” is needed.  Here, we need it to be a financial change (either earning power or monetary need).
  2. Those circumstances must relate to the child or a person affected by the order.
  3. The change in circumstance must have occurred after the signing of the order.

With the above set of facts, changing that child support payment becomes possible.  At the hearing, the above must be shown.  Simple testimony is not always enough.  The best way would be to show tax returns or pay stubs showing income at the time of the signing of the order, then current tax returns or pay stubs.

For an interesting case showing this process, look at In the Interest of C.H.C. by clicking the name of the case.

Fraudulent Marriage – Annulled!

Ever hear of a marriage based on lies and deceit?  I think everyone has, but never have I seen it laid out as clearly as is done in the opinion below:

Montenegro v. Avila

In this case, a man and woman met on an internet dating site.  The man initially claimed to be an engineer in Florida while the woman honestly stated she lived in El Paso.  The man finally, after they began to talk about meeting, told her that he could not visit her in Texas because he was in Bogota, Colombia, and could not get a visa.  The couple met in Mexico, where the man proposed.  He was turned down, but did get $200 to make his way back home. Later that same year, the woman traveled to Colombia, was proposed to, and accepted.

Man, now Husband, gets woman, now Wife, to apply for a visa for him.  He gets to the United States, get Wife to open bank accounts in both of their names, and begins withdrawing funds.  He doesn’t work until almost a year later, but instead begins the residency process.  On and on it goes…

Then Husband finds out about the Violence Against Women Act and how it can be twisted to circumvent the typical visa/residence restrictions.  The same day he learns about this he turns himself into a domestic violence center and reported he was being abused physically, verbally, mentally, and sexually.  He eventually leaves with the money he’s taken and other ill-gotten goods and moves to another city.

Wife filed for annulment, he filed for divorced.  Guess who won?  Wife – the marriage was annulled on the grounds of fraud.  Very interesting.  I’m not an immigration attorney, but I’ll bet that if that marriage visa was based on fraud, as could be concluded by the annulment being granted, he would probably have to leave the country, hence his need to appeal and our ability to read a very interesting appellate decision describing this case!

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