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Fault-Grounds in a Texas Divorce – Sandra Bullock’s Case

On April 10, 2010, Sandra Bullock filed for divorce in the Travis County, District court. Her Original Petition for Divorce, Cause No-D-1-FM-10-002232, seeks to end her nearly five year marriage.

Since the date the public became aware of this situation, I received numerous inquiries into how adultery can affect the outcome of a client’s case. In short, the courts are limited to financial damages to offset the ‘fault ground’ of adultery. I actually read the Bullock divorce petition, and it is important to note that it does not contain any language alleging adultery. Texas repealed the criminal statute for adultery in 1973. Today, it is limited to a civil cause of action and a civil judge can assess a penalty on the offending party if the aggrieved party is able to prove that adultery occurred and that it destroyed the legitimate ends of the marriage.

Texas is what is known as a “no-fault” state. This means that the parties can simply state to the court that the marriage is no longer supportable, and based upon this testimony along, the parties can be granted a divorce. In less agreeable circumstances, a party, can have her attorney add language to her petition of divorce stating that there was fault in the break-up of the marriage and request the court to award financial damages.

There are other forms of fault grounds include cruel treatment, abandonment or confinement to a mental hospital at least three years. The affect of a finding by a judge or jury that a fault ground exists can impact the award of the community estate to the parties.

In general, Texas is a community property state, wherein the presumption in the law is that possessions or debts assumed during the period of marriage are owned by the parties equally. This is called the community estate. A home or engagement ring or other possession owned by a party before the marriage, by contrasts, is known as a separate estate. The presumption of an equal division of the community estate is altered IF a fault ground such as adultery is proven by a party.

There are no rules that set the absolute dollar amount for which a judge and jury are limited in imposing as a penalty upon the community property interests of the offending spouse. However, I have seen in larger community estates that are worth in excess of one million dollars, awards that are in excess of multiple percentage points of the total value of the community estate. In the case of more modest estates, awards can be in excess of a few percentage points of the total value of the community estate.

The long term impact of divorce on individuals and families can be significant. Persons who are facing a difficult decision regarding the dissolution of their marriage should consult a competent attorney to assess the merits of the case.

James W. Evans

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