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Bunts v. Williams

Court of Appeals of Texas, First District

May 23, 2019


          On Appeal from the 247th District Court Harris County, Texas Trial Court Case No. 2015-22036

          Panel consists of Justices Keyes, Higley, and Landau.


          Laura Carter Higley, Justice.

         LaMar Carver Bunts ("Father") and Sensimone Williams ("Mother") are the parents of a daughter ("Beth") born in 2009.[1] In 2015, Mother filed suit against Father, requesting the trial court to adjudicate the parent-child relationship between Father and Beth and to determine, inter alia, whether Mother was entitled to retroactive child support against Father. Mother also requested that Father be prohibited from taking Beth to Brazil, a country to which Father has ties. Following a bench trial, the trial court signed a judgment adjudicating Father's parentage, awarding Mother retroactive child support, prohibiting Father from taking Beth to Brazil, and addressing other issues related to conservatorship, possession, and support. The trial court filed findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of its judgment.

         In four issues, Father challenges the trial court's judgment. He contends that the trial court abused its discretion by awarding Mother $52, 508 in retroactive child support and by prohibiting him from taking Beth to Brazil. He also complains that the trial court should have filed additional findings of fact and conclusions of law.

         We affirm.


         Mother and Father have never been married to one another nor have they ever lived together. However, Mother and Father have known each other since they were teenagers. They attended the same high school and the same college. They maintained their relationship when each went to different graduate schools and then began their professional careers.

         At the time of Beth's birth in September 2009, Mother lived in New Jersey, and Father lived in California. Father was present at Beth's birth, and he was named as her father on her birth certificate. After the birth, Father continued to live in California and would travel to see Beth in New Jersey, staying in Mother's home when he came to visit.

         When Beth was six months old, Mother accepted a job in Virginia, and she and Beth moved there. Father continued to travel from California to see Beth, staying in Mother's home when he visited. Father also maintained frequent telephone and video contact with Beth.

         Mother was primarily responsible for facilitating decisions relating to Beth's basic needs, such as her education and her medical care. Mother kept Father informed about issues important to Beth's development and well-being, and Father agreed with the decisions and choices Mother made regarding Beth's upbringing. Father would attend medical appointments and school activities with Beth when he could. They would all celebrate important events together, such as birthdays. In short, during this time, Mother and Father amicably co-parented Beth.

         As an infant, Beth was in daycare in New Jersey. She was also in daycare in Virginia. In 2012, Mother researched preschools for Beth and found one that she liked, the Congressional School. Mother and Father signed a contract with the school, indicating that they were each individually liable for Beth's tuition of $20, 000 to $22, 000 per year.

         In 2012, Beth was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder. To treat the disorder, Beth was prescribed occupational therapy. Mother and Father agreed that Beth should have occupational therapy, but Mother paid for the therapy. Beth met her goals for the therapy, and it was discontinued in 2014.

         In September 2014, Mother informed Father that he could no longer stay in her home when he came to visit Beth. Mother would later testify that she made this decision after Father stayed out all night while visiting Beth and would not answer Mother's calls. Father continued to visit Beth, but he stayed in a hotel when he came to visit.

         Mother learned in 2014 that her employer required her to move to Houston in June 2015. Father was informed of the upcoming move. While still living in Virginia, Mother began to research and visit possible schools for Beth in Houston. Father participated in visiting the schools, and the parents agreed on a school for Beth in Houston. Once in Houston, Beth again needed occupational therapy.

         Up to this point, there had never been a court order adjudicating Father's paternity. Nor had there been a court order requiring Father to provide financial support for Beth. However, since Beth's birth, Father had provided periodic financial support for certain of Beth's needs. When Beth was born, Father gave Mother $5, 000 that he had received from his insurance company. Father also provided secondary health insurance to Beth from 2009 until 2013.

         Father on occasion paid for Beth's daycare in New Jersey and in Virginia, but Mother paid for most of the daycare costs. Father also paid school tuition at the Congressional School. Father offered evidence at trial indicating that his tuition payments for several years totaled around $60, 000.

         In her trial testimony, Mother stated that Father's financial support was discretionary, given only when Father chose to provide it and only for expenses he chose to cover. If Father did not pay for an expense associated with Beth's care, then Mother paid for it. Mother described Father's financial support as sporadic and unreliable. She said that Father never gave her money to cover costs associated with Beth's basic daily living expenses, such as food or shelter.

         In April 2015, Mother filed suit against Father in Harris County, Texas. Mother sought an adjudication of Father's parentage and requested orders relating to issues of conservatorship, possession, and child support, including retroactive child support. Father filed suit against Mother in Virginia, seeking joint custody of Beth. Mother and Beth moved to Houston in early June 2015 as planned. Ultimately, it was determined that the Harris County court had jurisdiction over the parents' dispute.

         Before trial, the parties engaged in mediation, and temporary orders were signed in February 2016. The orders required Father to pay child support and to reimburse Mother for the cost of Beth's health insurance premiums.

         At the beginning of trial, the trial court accepted, among others, the following stipulations of the parties:

• The parents will be Beth's joint managing conservators;
• Mother will have the exclusive right to designate Beth's primary residence and the right to receive child support from Father;
• Father will have standard visitation "with expansions";
• Father's net monthly resources exceed the maximum monthly amount for guideline child support at $8, 550; and
• Father should pay Mother prospective monthly child support of $1, 710 pursuant to the Texas Family Code guidelines.
Among the disputed issues remaining to be tried were the following:
• Whether retroactive child support should be awarded and, if so, how much.
• Whether passport controls and travel restrictions should be imposed with respect to Beth.

         A two-day bench trial was held in July 2016. The trial court heard the testimony of Mother, Father, and Beth's current occupational therapist. Documentary evidence was also offered by both parents.

         The trial court signed a final judgment on May 16, 2017, adjudicating Father's parentage of Beth. Among its provisions, the judgment also awarded Mother $52, 508.00 in retroactive child support as follows:

The Court finds that no order adjudicating [Father] or ordering any support for the minor child was in place until February 2016.
The Court finds that the parties agreed and stipulated that throughout the child's life, [Father's] average monthly income exceeded the statutory cap and that the parties agreed that periodic monthly child support going forward would be set at $1, 170.00 as set forth herein.
The Court further finds that throughout the child's life, [Father] earned at the statutory cap set forth in the Texas family code prior to the September 1, 2013, amendment and after.
The Court further finds that since February 2016, [Father] has paid periodic child support and reimbursed [Mother] for the cost of covering the child on her health insurance policy.
The Court further finds that [Father] knew he was the father from the date of the child's birth and the Court finds that his obligation had support been ordered would have been $115, 590.00 in child support; and, $15, 120.00 in reimbursement for the health insurance premium carried by [Mother].
The Court also finds that [Father] did provide actual support in the amount of $78, 202.00 since the child's birth.
The Court also finds that in light of [Father's] education, employment history and assets, the payment of retroactive child support will not place an undue hardship on him.
Accordingly, the Court, finds it is in the best interest of the child, THEREFORE IT IS ORDERED that [Father] pay to [Mother] retroactive child support in the amount of Fifty-Two Thousand Five Hundred Eight & No/100 Dollars ($52, 508.00), such amount representing the difference between the actual amounts paid and the amount that could have been ordered.

         In its separately filed findings of fact and conclusions of law, the trial court supported the award of retroactive child support as follows:

1.4 Findings Supporting Award of Retroactive Child Support
Prior to this lawsuit [Father] had not been previously ordered to pay support for the child.
Prior to this lawsuit [Father] had not been party to a suit in which support had been ordered.
1.5 Findings Supporting Amount of Retroactive Child Support
[Father] was aware he was the child's father from her birth and never denied that he was.
It was undisputed that [Father] owns property in California, Arizona and Brazil.
[Father] paid the agreed temporary child support amount of $1, 710 per month after mediation in January 2016, paid his attorneys and signed a residential lease obligating him to pay $2, 300 per month.
[Father] paid reimbursement to [Mother] for health insurance during the temporary orders.
No evidence was offered that [Father] was unable to meet his financial obligations during the temporary orders at any other relevant time.
No evidence was presented that [Father] has established or contributed to any ...

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