A mediated settlement agreement, especially in divorce cases, can help both parties in so many aspects. Choosing to work out an agreement outside the courtroom rather than having a judge decide on the case will enable the parties to save money and time. Having an agreement also lets the parties plot the course of the future of their family. This is also favored by judges since it entails the reduction of trials and hearings on temporary orders that they must oversee. The only exception is when there is the involvement of children in the case because a judge must still ensure that the settlement agreements are in the child’s best interests.
In Re: Stephanie Lee
Most settlement agreements are not changed by judges who are to sign them. However, a recent case that happened in Houston, where two judges who were assigned to the case refused to sign and honor an agreement due to the fact that they believed it was not for the best interest of the children. The name of this case was In Re: Stephanie Lee. The Texas Supreme Court had to decide whether to uphold the validity of the settlement agreement or not.
The father and mother were dealing with a post-divorce child custody case. They both had agreed to a Mediated Settlement Agreement, which included the pre-scheduled visitation of both parents with the child. Shortly after coming up with the binding agreement, the father told the judge during a hearing with the Court that he no longer assents to the agreement, specifically with regard to his ex-wife’s visitation because of her marriage to a registered sex offender. The judges refused to sign off on the agreement made between the parties because they believe letting a child be around a registered sex offender did not satisfy the “best interests of the child” standard.
Protection of Child’s Interest
According to the Texas Family Code, there are two important factors to consider before a Court issues a family law order: 1) best interests of the child; and 2) safety of the child. The court will uphold the mediated agreement, but it can choose not to if it finds that it is not for the best interest of the child.
In the case of Stephanie Lee, who was the mother of the child, when it was appealed, the appellate Court held that the mediated settlement agreement was actually in the best interests of the child and that if the agreement did in fact endanger the child, the trial court could raise this in other avenues.
The Texas Supreme Court decision’s rationale was once the parents entered into a mediated settlement agreement, no one, even the Court itself should be allowed to interfere with the agreement if there is no showing of family violence when they came up with the agreement and if the agreement serves the best interests of the child.
According to the public policy of Texas, the ones who have the primary responsibility to decide on matters that are in the best interest of their child or children are the parents.
The takeaway of the case of Stephanie Lee is that Mediated Settlement Agreements are difficult to overturn. Trial Courts hesitate more in attempting to question the terms of a mediated settlement agreement because of the decision of this case. Texas have multiple ways by which the parties can resolve issues outside the courtroom, and anything that they have agreed on, provided that they follow the standards stated above, shall be honored.
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