Originally published by Evan Hochschild.
By choosing the work out an agreement with the opposing party outside of the courtroom rather than force a judge to decide, the parties have saved money, time and allowed themselves to chart the course for their family’s future.
Judges are delighted to have one less trial or temporary orders hearing that they must oversee, so bringing a settlement agreement before a Court is usually a good thing for everyone involved.
However- when children are involved in the case, a judge will still need to ensure that the agreements made are in the best interests of the child.
In re Stephanie Lee
While most settlements agreements are not altered in the slightest bit by judges, a recent situation that took place in Houston involved judges refusing to honor an agreement because they believed it to not be in the best interest of the children.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court of Texas was called on to decide as to whether or not the agreement was valid.
For those who are interested, the name of the Supreme Court case is In re Stephanie Lee. For the sake of brevity, I will provide a thumbnail sketch of the facts of this case.
Summary of the Facts
Essentially a mother and father were involved in a post-divorce child custody case and had agreed to a binding Mediated Settlement Agreement. Within that agreement was a visitation schedule where both mom and dad had pre-scheduled visitation with the child.
This is the norm for Texas custody cases. What was abnormal was the father letting the judge know at a hearing with the Court after the agreement was reached that he was no longer in agreement with his ex-wife on visitation due to her recent marriage to a registered sex offender.
The two judges assigned to the case both refused to sign off on the agreement made between the parties due to the facts presented subsequently by the father. Their rationale for doing so was that it was not in the best interests of the child to be in the presence of a registered sex offender.
Best Interest of the Child?
How does the Texas Family Code handle such a situation? Well, our State law has it that the best interests of the child as well as the safety of the child are the most important factors in any family law order issued by a Court.
These objectives become somewhat difficult to enforce when mediated settlement agreements can only be overturned by a Court when family violence is involved that affected the decision making capabilities of a party to the agreement and if the agreement is not the best interests of the child.
Court’s Decision Appealed
With this in mind, the mother (Stephanie Lee) appealed the decision of the trial court to a higher court and lost there as well- the mediated settlement agreement was still not enforced.
Ms. Lee then sought the opinion of the highest authority on legal matters our State has to offer- the Texas Supreme Court. The Court ended up ruling that a trial court judge (the type of judges who oversee divorce and child custody cases in Texas) cannot reject a mediated settlement agreement even if they believe that the agreement is not in the best interests of the children involved.
This Court held that the agreement was in fact in the best interests of the child and that if the agreement did endanger the child children there were other avenues by which the trial court could raise those concerns.
The Texas Supreme Court’s Decision
The Texas Supreme Court was in a position where it had to make a decision on essentially which is more important:
- a judge’s ability to protect what he or she believes is the best interests of child whom their Court has jurisdiction over, or
- the widely held belief that once parties entered into a mediated settlement agreement no party and the Court itself should not be able to interfere with the agreement absent those two conditions outlined earlier in this blog post.
It is the public policy of our State that parents have the primary responsibility to make decisions in the best interest of their children. When parents come to an agreement outside of Court it is assumed that they have done so.
The fact that a mediator was involved and signed off on the agreement further gave weight to the idea that even if a judge (or judges) disagreed with what was in the best interests of a child, the parents’ wishes would rule the day.
Bottom line for the parties involved with this case was that their mediated settlement agreement was valid and the Trial Court was ordered to abide by the decision of the parties and sign off on the Order that was drafted based on that settlement agreement.
Mediated Settlement Agreements are Hard to Overturn
For parties to child custody and divorce cases in Texas, this ruling by our Supreme Court further strengthened the validity of mediated settlement agreements no matter what was actually agreed to.
Trial Courts are much more hesitant to attempt to challenge the terms of a settlement agreement for any reason based on this decision. While there are circumstances where this may not be ideal, for most parties this decision provides peace of mind that an overreaching judge cannot change the destiny of a case at the last minute.
Our State allows multiple means by which parties can resolve issues outside the courtroom, and when agreements are reached it is important for those settlements to be honored.
When it comes to contested issues in family law cases, the Houston divorce attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan are prepared to assist you and your family. Our experience in the Courtroom and in settlement conferences allow us to give advice that will best assist clients in making decisions that can have far reaching affects on their family. If you have questions on any family law issue, please do not hesitate to contact our office today schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys- free of charge.
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- 6 Tips – On How to prepare for a Texas Divorce
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Law Office of Bryan Fagan | Houston, Texas Divorce Lawyers
The Law Office of Bryan Fagan routinely handles matters that affect children and families. If you have questions regarding divorce, it’s important to speak with one of our Houston, TX Divorce Lawyers right away to protect your rights.
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