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Bruce v. Bruce

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

May 26, 2017

Brooke Bruce, Appellant
v.
Carter Bruce, Appellee1

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 345TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-FM-06-002028, HONORABLE RHONDA HURLEY, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Field and Bourland

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [1]

          Scott K. Field, Justice

         Appellant Brooke Bruce appeals the trial court's final order in a child-support enforcement action. See Tex. Fam. Code §§ 157.001-.426 (enforcement proceedings). In three issues, Brooke challenges those portions of the order crediting her ex-husband, Carter Bruce, for payments that were not made through the state disbursement unit, as required by the couple's divorce decree. Brooke also challenges the trial court's refusal to award her attorney's fees. See id. § 157.671. Because we conclude that the trial court abused its discretion in failing to award Brooke attorney's fees, we will reverse that portion of the order and remand for further proceedings. In all other respects, we will affirm the trial court's order.

          BACKGROUND

         Brooke and Carter were married in 1992 and divorced in 2007. The couple had one child, M.B., who was 11 years old at the time of the divorce. The divorce decree appointed Brooke and Carter joint managing conservators and awarded Brooke the right to designate the child's primary residence. In addition, the decree ordered Carter to pay periodic child support in the amount of $1, 500 per month beginning April 1, 2007, and then to pay $1, 750 per month beginning April 1, 2008. The decree ordered "that all payments shall be made through the state disbursement unit . . . and thereafter promptly remitted to [Brooke] for the support of the child." The decree also required that Carter "provide and maintain health insurance" for M.B. and that Carter and Brooke each pay 50 percent of any health-care expenses for M.B. not covered by insurance.

         In 2015, Carter sued Brooke to recover child-support payments that, according to Carter, were made in excess of the decree's child-support order. In his petition, Carter alleged that he made numerous payments directly to Brooke and that these payments should have been, but were not, credited to him as child-support payments. Carter sought a judgment in his favor for what he claimed were overpaid child-support payments and health-insurance premiums, plus interest and attorney's fees.[2] Brooke filed an answer, generally denying Carter's claims and asserting a counterclaim for recovery of child-support arrearages, unpaid medical support, and attorney's fees pursuant to section 157.167 of the Texas Family Code. See id. § 157.167 (requiring respondent to pay attorney's fees and costs when court finds respondent has "failed to make child support payments").

         Following a final hearing, the trial court signed a "final order confirming child support arrearages and denying contempt." See id. § 157.161-.068 (hearing and enforcement order). In its order, signed on June 20, 2016, the trial court included the following relevant findings:

(1) "[Carter] failed to timely pay periodic child support to [Brooke] through the State Disbursement Unit in the amount of $22, 965.00";
(2) "[Carter] failed to timely pay unreimbursed healthcare expenses for the child to [Brooke] in the amount of $939.49";
(3) "[Carter] is entitled to offsets of that total sum due to direct payments made by [Carter] to [Brooke] or to others."
(4) "[Carter] is entitled to offsets for the following payments for a total $19, 816.83:
1.
11/1/2007
$3, 000.00
Check to [Brooke]
2.
7/19/2009
$4, 000.00
Check to [Brooke]
3.
8/25/2009
$10, 000.00
Check to [Brooke]
4.
10/6/2009
$1, 000.00
Check to [Brooke]

5.

12/16/2009

$1, 816.83

Check to Nelda Well Spears for property taxes"

         Based on these findings, the trial court denied Carter's "request to recover child support overpayments, " declared that "the total final amount of arrearages confirmed and that remain due and owing for child and medical support is [$4, 087.66], " and awarded a judgment in favor of Brooke for this amount. The court also ordered that "each party shall be solely responsible for his or her respective attorney's fees." Neither party requested separate findings of fact and conclusions of law, ...


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