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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS:Rita Bielefeld filed suit to divorce Richard Bielefeld. The parties entered into temporary orders for Richard to pay Rita’s car payment, auto and health insurance, and spousal support. Richard kept the kids, but no child support was ordered. Richard was agreed to pay $3,000 in interim attorneys’ fees to Rita’s attorneys. Rita’s attorney filed a request for additional interim fees for work having to do with determining the character of certain property. After hearing evidence that Richard would be able to make an additional payment if he borrowed money from his business or his parents, the trial court ordered Richard to pay an additional $50,000 in interim attorneys’ fees. The trial court’s order did not mention additional spousal support. Seven months after the order, Rita’s attorney filed a motion to enforce the second attorneys’ fee order. The trial court found Richard to be in both criminal and civil contempt for failure to pay. This order did characterize the interim attorneys’ fees as “additional spousal support.” The trial court assessed punishment at 30 days, within continued confinement until he paid the $50,000 to the court registry. Richard filed a writ of habeas corpus with this court. On first consideration, a panel denied relief. The case comes to the court again on a motion for rehearing and a motion for rehearing en banc. HOLDING:Writ granted. Original opinion withdrawn, motion for rehearing granted, but rehearing en banc denied. The court sets out some basic rules. The state constitution prohibits imprisonment for debt, the court confirms, and Texas law generally forbids collection of attorneys’ fees by contempt proceedings. But, spouses’ obligations to support each other and their children are not debts, and can be enforced through contempt proceedings. The court acknowledges that several courts have held that interim orders to a spouse to pay third-party debts, such as a mortgage or car payments, are orders for payment of “debt” in violation of the constitution, though the same courts stated they might have held differently had the fees been characterized as temporary spousal support. The court finds that in this case, the trial court’s order does not characterize the fees to be paid as either temporary or for spousal support. Regardless of what the trial court said to the contrary, the order itself does not so specify. At best, the order here is for conduct violating an implied or inferred order never reduced to writing. But there can be no constructive contempt without a written order setting forth clear, specific and unambiguous terms. “We hold that the trial court did not have authority to enforce its written order for payment of advance interim attorney’s fees and future expenses of $50,000 to Rita’s divorce lawyer by contempt because it did not characterize those fees and expenses as spousal support, thus making them attorney’s fees which may not be enforced by contempt. Therefore, the contempt order is void.” OPINION:Gardner, J.; Cayce, C.J., Gardner and Day, JJ.
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