The Texas Supreme Court issued its opinion In re Stephanie Lee. This addressed whether a family court can refuse a mediated settlement agreement when the judge does not believe it is in the children’s best interest. The court held a judge may not reject an MSA believing it is not in the child’s best interest. This ruling strengthens the authority of mediated settlement agreements in a Texas divorce. If you face a divorce or custody lawsuit it may be worth considering using an MSA to craft a custody agreement. No matter the outcome of your divorce or child custody case you should hire an experienced family law attorney to represent you.
What is a mediated settlement agreement?
A mediated settlement agreement is a settlement agreement in a divorce reached with the assistance of a mediator. The Texas Family Code permits divorce agreements by a mediated settlement agreement incorporated into the divorce decree. The MSA may deal with only child issues or property issues; but typically the MSA will address both property division and child possession and support issues. The MSA becomes a binding agreement once signed. It is rare that a mediated settlement agreement is not upheld as a valid agreement.
In mediation all of the parties to a divorce or child custody case attend a voluntary settlement conference with a neutral third party called a mediator to see if they can agree on an outcome in the case. Typically the parties will be in separate rooms and the mediator will go between the rooms. The mediator will present arguments and proposals from the other side and explain weaknesses in your case to try to bring the parties together.
If the parties can reach an agreement then the parties typically will sign a mediated settlement agreement. The mediated settlement agreement (MSA) can be presented to the judge as part of a final judgment in the case.
In family law cases mediation can be a good alternative to a trial. In a family court trial the judge or jury will decide the relationships between the parents and children in the future. That may result in a set of relationships that does not really work for the family members. In mediation the parents (and other parties) take ownership over deciding how to arrange those relationships.
The mediated settlement agreement and the best interests of the children in Texas
In In re Stephanie Lee the Texas Supreme Court dealt with an MSA presented as part of the divorce decree; but the district court rejected the MSA because it was not in the best interests of the children. The best interests of the children is the criterion courts must use to determine how to deal with child issues.
In this case, the district court believed the MSA’s terms were not in the best interests of the children. Appeals brought the issue before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court of Texas held that the mediated settlement agreement contained a determination of the children’s best interests. The trial court, therefore, lacked the authority to challenge that determination. The court held that if the agreement endangered the children the court had other avenues to raise those concerns.
This opinion may seem like a powerful usurping of judicial oversight and administration of divorces but it is definitely unsurprising when cast against the widespread position that courts should not interfere with agreements reached by parties in alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation and arbitration. It is also unsurprising that the Supreme Court handed down an opinion that preserves the ability for parents to reach an agreement about what is best for their children.
Especially with an agreement reached with the assistance of a professional mediator and no doubt attorneys on both sides. That is a very different situation from two parents drafting a possession order or child support based on what is convenient for their needs rather than what is best for their children, as sometimes happens.
Furthermore, it is an unsurprising holding considering the apparent legislative objective to transition divorce and SAPCR (suit affecting the parent child relationship) cases to a non-litigation framework. The Texas Family Code strongly supports resolving family cases through alternative dispute resolution methods like arbitration and mediation, as well as quasi-ADR approaches like collaborative law. Whether Texas will ultimately benefit from this transition remains unknown, at least from the eyes of a partial skeptic such as myself.
However, skepticism aside, as lawyers we have to work within the frameworks provided by the Texas Family Code. If the code permits resolution through frameworks like mediation then the courts ought to uphold the valid agreements they produce.
Divorce lawyers in Texas
Divorce lawyers help clients maneuver the legal system to protect their relationship with their children. The legislature built the judicial system to give judges wide latitude to consider facts and make decisions about the cases before them. Unfortunately judges rarely have the opportunity learn enough about the parties and their relationships to craft perfect solutions every time. That is why the parties should hire divorce lawyers to represent them and advocate for their interests.
Mediation often becomes part of divorce and child custody proceedings for multiple reasons. Often in divorce cases the judge will insist the parties attempt to mediate their case before a trial. Judges often require mediation in child custody cases. If a district or county family law agency is involved in your case they will usually push for mediation over a hearing. If you seek a modification of an existing custody order then often the existing order requires mediation before a hearing or even filing a petition to modify.
After In re Stephanie Lee mediation became a far more powerful tool because judges cannot overrule a mediated settlement agreement reached by the parties. This empowers the parties to take ownership of the co-parenting relationship which is great. On the other hand, if one party feels overwhelmed and accepts an mediated settlement agreement that is harmful to the parent or children the judge generally cannot step in and stop the agreement. Parents who come to mediation without a family law attorney are more likely to feel pressed by another party’s attorney or the mediator.
The best way to ensure a mediated settlement is fair to you is to come to mediation with an experienced family law attorney. Your attorney can advocate for you and advise you of the effects of a proposed settlement. By having an experienced advocate on you side you can ensure an even playing field.