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Highsmith v. Highsmith

Supreme Court of Texas

October 25, 2019

Charles Robert Highsmith, Petitioner,
v.
Meredith Kathryn Highsmith, Respondent

          On Petition for Review from the Court of Appeals for the Seventh District of Texas

          PER CURIAM

         Under the Texas Family Code, a party to a suit for dissolution of marriage or a suit affecting the parent-child relationship is entitled to judgment on a mediated settlement agreement (MSA) if the agreement satisfies the statute's enumerated requirements. Tex. Fam. Code §§ 6.602(c), 153.0071(d). The principal issue in this case is whether an MSA that resolves the parties' property-division and conservatorship issues can satisfy all statutory requirements if it is executed before a petition for divorce is filed. Unlike the court of appeals, we hold that it can. However, we agree with the court of appeals that one of the parties to the MSA at issue did not receive proper notice of the hearing at which the trial court rendered judgment on the MSA. Accordingly, we reverse the court of appeals' judgment in part and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings.

         Charles and Meredith Highsmith married in 2004 and had two children. In 2014, Meredith decided to end the marriage, and she located a mediator to assist the parties in working out the terms of their divorce. On February 11, 2015, the Highsmiths attended mediation without attorneys and executed a written agreement titled "Mediated Settlement Agreement."

         The Highsmiths' agreement provided for immediate partition of the marital estate and settled all child custody issues, making Charles and Meredith joint managing conservators with Charles possessing the right to designate the children's primary residence. Additionally, Meredith was given extended possession rights and, in exchange for allowing Charles to keep the marital home, was not required to pay child support. The agreement stated that a divorce action "[would] be filed by [Meredith] within 10 days of [the] agreement" and would be finalized "not before May 1, 2015 but . . . at any time thereafter." Meredith also "agree[d] to appear in court . . . and secure rendition of judgment in accordance with [the] agreement." The MSA stated in underlined, capital letters that it was not subject to revocation.

         On February 20, nine days after the Highsmiths executed the agreement, Charles filed a divorce petition in Travis County.[1] The petition twice referenced the parties' MSA, requesting that the court approve the agreement and render judgment consistent with it. Meredith filed an answer on March 30 that contained a general denial but did not reference the MSA.

         On May 1, Charles and his attorney appeared in court for the uncontested docket. During that brief hearing, Charles testified as to the insupportability of the marriage and requested that the court approve the terms contained in the Highsmiths' MSA. At the end of the hearing, the trial court orally rendered judgment on the MSA. Meredith did not receive notice of the hearing and thus did not attend.

         On May 20, Meredith filed a motion to set aside the judgment and, in the alternative, a motion for new trial, as well as a motion to revoke the MSA. She asserted in those post-judgment motions that (1) the MSA was unenforceable because it did not comply with the Family Code's requirements-namely, the MSA was signed before a suit for divorce was in existence, (2) the May 1 hearing violated Meredith's due process rights because she did not receive the requisite forty-five days' notice under Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 245, and (3) Charles breached the agreement when he filed for divorce despite the express language that Meredith would file suit and obtain rendition on the MSA. The trial court denied the motions and entered a final decree of divorce on July 2, 2015, incorporating the MSA's terms. In its order denying Meredith's motion to revoke the MSA, the trial court specifically found that the MSA "is [e]nforceable" pursuant to chapter 6 of the Family Code.

         The court of appeals reversed, disagreeing with the trial court's conclusion that the parties' MSA was enforceable under section 6.602. S.W.3d, (Tex. App.-Amarillo 2017). Instead, the court held that under the section's plain language, a pending suit for divorce is a "threshold requirement" for obtaining a statutorily binding MSA; thus, because the parties entered into their agreement before either had filed for divorce, the agreement was merely a contract subject to the same defenses as any other contract. Id. at . The court also held that Meredith was denied due process when Charles failed to give her notice of the May 1 hearing. Id. at . The court explained that, because Meredith made an appearance by filing an answer, she was entitled to forty-five days' notice under Rule 245. Id. at . The court further rejected the notion that the lack of notice constituted harmless error because Meredith's post-judgment motions indicated that, had she received proper notice, she would have timely challenged the agreement's enforceability. Id. at . Charles filed a petition for review with this Court, contending that the parties' MSA meets the Family Code's requirements and that Meredith was not entitled to notice of the hearing.

         We first address the MSA's compliance with the Family Code. Section 6.602, located in the chapter governing divorce suits, provides in pertinent part:

(a)On the written agreement of the parties or on the court's own motion, the court may refer a suit for dissolution of the marriage to mediation.
(b) A mediated settlement agreement is binding on the parties if the agreement:
(1)provides, in a prominently displayed statement that is in boldfaced type or capital letters or underlined, that the ...

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