One of the most common questions we get concerning divorce appeals concerns disproportionate property divisions. In most contested Texas divorces, trial courts attempt to divide the marital estate evenly between the parties. But not always. Sometimes, for various reasons, a trial court believes that one spouse should receive a disproportionately greater share of the estate. And occasionally, that disproportionate share can be extreme—even comprising 100% of the estate. In these situations, the spouse holding the short end of the marital-property stick almost always wants to appeal the division.
The Texas Supreme Court authorized disproportionate property divisions in Murff v. Murff, 615 S.W.2d 696, 699 (Tex. 1981). In that decision, the court set out the following non-exclusive factors that a court may consider in dividing the marital estate:
- the spouses’ capacities and abilities,
- benefits which the party not at fault would have derived from continuation of the marriage,
- business opportunities,
- relative physical conditions,
- relative financial condition and obligations,
- disparity of ages,
- size of separate estates, and
- the nature of the property.
Id. at 699.
A trial court also may take fault into consideration when dividing an estate. Nowzaradan v. Nowzaradan, No. 01-05-00094-CV, 2007 WL 441709, at *7 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Feb. 8, 2007, no pet.) (mem. op.) (citing Murff, 615 S.W.2d at 698). In a fault-based divorce, the trial court may consider the conduct of the errant spouse when making a disproportionate distribution of the marital estate. In re Marriage of C.A.S., 405 S.W.3d 373, 384 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2013, no pet.); In re K.R.C., No. 05-13-01419-CV, 2015 WL 7731784, at *4 (Tex. App.—Dallas Dec. 1, 2015, pet. denied) (mem. op.).
Finally, the trial court also may consider that a spouse unfairly depleted or dissipated community assets in deciding how to divide the marital estate. Nowzaradan, 2007 WL 441709, at *7; Vannerson v. Vannerson, 857 S.W.2d 659, 669 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1993, pet. denied).
As these cases establish, the trial court generally possesses very broad discretion in decisions concerning division of the marital estate. In the ordinary mine-run of appeals from disproportionate property divisions, evidence of the Murff factors will be deemed sufficient to support the division on appeal. But that doesn’t mean an appeal can’t succeed.
First, Texas appellate courts routinely reverse disproportionate awards where no one introduced any evidence of the Murff factors. See, e.g., O’Carolan v. Hopper, 71 S.W.3d 529 (Tex. App.—Austin 2002, no pet.); Pena v. Pena, 13-17-00585-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi July 5, 2018).
Second, a disproportionate award will be reversed where the only evidence of the Murff factors actually favors the losing spouse (yes, this actually happens!). See, e.g., Kaftousian v. Rezaeipanah, 511 S.W.3d 618, 623 (Tex. App.—El Paso 2015); Smith v. Smith, 143 S.W.3d 206, (Tex. App.—Waco 2004).
Third, while it does not necessarily mean a disproportionate division will be reversed on appeal, some appellate courts also consider whether anyone ever requested a disproportionate share. See, e.g., Reyes v. Reyes, 13-09-00105-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi June 30, 2011.
Finally, a disproportionate division may be reversed where the trial court mischaracterizes separate assets as community assets and erroneously divides them as part of the marital estate. See, e.g., Panozzo v. Panozzo, 13-17-00585-CV (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 1995, no pet.).
In the end, whether an appellate challenge to a disproportionate division of marital property is likely to succeed turns on the specific facts of each case. If we can help you evaluate the likelihood of success in your case, please contact us.