Anatomy of a Texas Family Law Appeal - Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law

In a prior post, we discussed findings when child support is at issue. But there is another type of findings: Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, per Rules 296 et seq. of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Rule 296 states that a Request for Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law must be made within twenty days of the date the judge signed the decree, judgment or order being appealed.  

Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law can be requested when a family law case is tried before a judge. They are not available if the case is submitted to a jury. But most Texas family law cases are tried to the bench, so whether to request findings is usually an issue to be considered when appealing the case.

When a trial court makes Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, the appellate court inquires whether the findings support the judgment and whether there is sufficient evidence in the record to support the findings. When a family law appeal concerns parent–child issues other than child support, findings normally are not especially helpful to the appellate court because of the nature of these issues. The type of conservatorship ordered and times for possession and access are committed to the discretion of the trial court. A finding that, for example, the parents should be joint managing conservators adds nothing to the record because the appellate court still must consider the sufficiency of the evidence underlying the trial court's decision.

In addition to the findings allowed by the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, Texas Family Code section 6.711(a) specifically provides for findings when there are property issues:

(a) In a suit for dissolution of a marriage in which the court has rendered a judgment dividing the estate of the parties, on request by a party, the court shall state in writing its findings of fact and conclusions of law concerning:
(1) the characterization of each party's assets, liabilities, claims, and offsets on which disputed evidence has been presented;and
(2) the value or amount of the community estate's assets, liabilities, claims, and offsets on which disputed evidence has been presented.

Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law on valuation and characterization can be very helpful to the party who appeals on those issues. Because the court is forced to specify values, one can determine what evidence, if any, the record contains to support those values. One also can determine the exact proportionate division of the community property, opening up a challenge to disproportionate division. Finally, the evidence can be reviewed on characterization issues.

Ranches, Horses & Saws

A stepfather's "unwavering" testimony that a check to his stepdaughter for $50,000 was intended as a gift to her alone constituted sufficient evidence that the $50,000 was the stepdaughter's separate property when combined with the fact that the check was introduced as evidence at trial, the payee was the stepdaughter, the memo on the check recited that the check was a gift to the stepdaughter and the father failed a a gift tax return with the IRS listing the stepdaughter as the donee.

The trial court erred by characterizing a horse born during marriage as the stepdaughter's separate property because livestock born during marriage are community property regardless whether their parents are community or separate property. The trial court did not abuse its discretion by awarding the horse to the stepdaughter because the mischaracterization had "only a de minimus effect on the trial court's division of the community estate.

Husband failed to show divestment of his separate property table saw, table saw stand, western saddle, and cutting torch when the divorce decree awarded him all items of property in his possession but Husband failed to introduce evidence that these items were in Wife's possession rather than in his possession.

See Williams v. Williams