Dallas Divorce Lawyer Blog

Articles Posted in Custody

The Texas Family Code has a lot to say on what it means to be a father, what rights fathers have in regards to their children, and what obligations come along for the ride.

So first off, who is considered to be the father?

It is “a man legally determined to be the father, a man who has been adjudicated to be the father by a court of competent jurisdiction, a man who has acknowledged his paternity under applicable law, or an adoptive … father.” TFC § 101.024.

Dads are very important people. Very important to some really cool little people in this world. We are not say that because Dads are important that Moms are not. Moms are important too. Yet it seems, and maybe it’s just us, that during custody proceedings, the courts have to choose who is the most important to that kid. Then they give that winning parent the most Time. And Time is extremely precious.

In many cases, the most valuable parent award goes to Mom. Sometimes it’s Mom even when Dad has been doing most or the same amount of the caregiving, bathing, cooking, cleaning, homework supervising, and story-time-reading-before-the-kid-will-think-of-going-to-bed work.

Dads, stereotypically, have an uphill battle. So what is a good strategy for Dads fighting for more time with their kids? Dads who will fight to be in their kids lives, because their kids are important to them and they are important to their kids?

If you have a final decree or final order in a family law case with an obvious mistake from what the trial court ordered or the parties agreed, you can get it fixed through what is called a Nunc Pro Tunc.  The key is that this mistake has to be a clerical error—did it mix up the judgment of the court.  It cannot be one that requires “judicial reasoning and determination” or in other words any thought process on the judge’s part.  If it is in fact a clerical error, then under Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the trial court can fix this clerical error at any time.

What is an Example of a Clerical Error?

In Bernardo Reyes v. Olga Reyes, the Amarillo Seventh District Court of Appeals had to address this issue.  In that case, the trial court made an initial order on the record divorcing the parties and making appropriate orders regarding conservatorship and child support.  Most importantly, the trial court ordered that mother be the parent who has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the children and father to pay child support. The trial court rendered the orders on the record but the final decree was never actually signed by the court until three years later.  The problem was that the actual decree ordered mother to pay child support.  Mom filed a nunc pro tunc to fix this obvious error.  The trial court entered the nunc pro tunc, correcting the error that it was actually father who was supposed to be paying child support.  Father challenged that.  In reviewing the trial court’s record, the appellate court was able to determine that this was in fact a clerical error and affirmed the trial court’s ruling.

You just finalized your divorce or custody matter, however it seems like every time you turn around you think that your child should live with you instead of the other parent primarily of the time.  Even though it is has not even been a year yet since your final orders were rendered, it just seems as though something is constantly coming up and you are genuinely concerned.  The other parent may be endangering the child’s physical welfare or emotional development such as engaging in criminal activity, drug usage, physical/mental/sexual abuse, or overall endangerment of the child.  You want to change the custody orders now but you have been told that there are certain roadblocks in requesting the modification this soon.  What should you expect?

Less than One Year Requirements 

If you are filing your petition to change the parent who has the exclusive right to designate the child’s residence in less than one year, there are specific requirements that you must follow.  In fact, you must qualify within these statutory parameters to even file your case.  The most important and crucial requirement is the affidavit that must be attached to your petition.  In fact, Texas Family Code Section 156.102 mandates that an affidavit must be attached to your pleadings and “(b) must contain, along with supporting facts, at least one of the following allegations: (1) that the child’s present environment may endanger the child’s physical health or significantly impair the child’s emotional development; (2) that the person who has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child is the person seeking or consenting to the modification and the modification is in the best interest of the child; or (3) that the person who has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child has voluntarily relinquished the primary care and possession of the child for at least 6 months and the modification is in the best interest of the child.”  Frequently, we see the first requirement being the grounds on which someone files a modification.  Allegations are made that something bad has happened in the other parent’s care and this is why that parent should no longer have possession of the child.  But, the key is that the allegations must be made in the affidavit.  Many people get hung up on this requirement and many times affidavits fall short on their face.

Unfortunately, there are several horror stories about parties appearing pro se (without legal representation) in divorce, child custody, child support, etc. cases.  In fact, most of the time people make the mistake thinking that they can take care of the case themselves and then realize after the fact that they completely screwed it all up.  They then come to hire an attorney to unscrew those problems, which is most of the time easier said than done.  The best advice that can be given is to hire an attorney right at the beginning to ensure that you are fully protected and correctly advised throughout the entire proceeding.  You do not want to go through an entire divorce and then realize that you did something very bad and then try to appeal it, also on your own.  Because it can almost be guaranteed that if you attempt the second feat, appealing a case, on your own it will most definitely not go in your favor.

This issue was directly addressed in In the Interest of C.M., A Child by the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas.  In that case, the mother and father appeared and agreed to the terms of their divorce, including the child custody terms.  The Court, on the record, ensured several times that the mother understood what she was agreeing to and that this was in fact the final hearing and final orders to which the mother replied that she did understand.  Unfortunately, the mother realized what she had agreed to post-prove up and realized that basically stripped her of parental rights and left her with only supervised visits.  Therefore, without representation she thought she would appeal the divorce orders with respect to custody stating that she did not understand and she did not consent to the terms as they were based on “false accusations that were not proven.”  However, the Court of Appeals revealed the record of testimony (which is made at all prove ups) and discovered that she did consent to the terms, several times, and even stated she understood several times.

What most people do not understand when they represent themselves is that they do have a right, when facing a consent judgment or agreed order, to withdraw your consent at any time before the judgment is rendered by the court.  So, the problem in this case was that mother had failed to do that and was trying to withdraw her consent post-divorce which the Court of Appeals held cannot happen.  In fact, the Court stated, “Agreed judgments, once rendered, are contracts between the parties that excuse error and operate to end all controversy between the parties.” Pate v. Pate, 874 S.W.2d 186, 188 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 1994, writ denied.   Therefore, the Court held that they believed the mother’s appeal “was intended to constitute a withdrawal of her consent to the terms agreed upon at the bench trial” which was improper.  In the Interest of C.M., at page 11.

You have a pending case involving a child (divorce, SAPCR, modification) and child support has been established.  However, like most parents you are concerned about the future—what happens when the children go to college, how will I afford their expenses then?  Most people say that you can “save the child support” but that is not ideal.  Children are expensive and it is highly likely that you will spend all of the child support and then some with all of the things that come up throughout their lives until they turn 18 or graduate from high school.  Child support ends on “removal of the child’s disabilities for general purposes, the marriage or death of a child, or a finding by the court that the child is 18 years of age or older and is no longer enrolled in high school or a high-school equivalent program.”  In the Interest of W.R.B. and B.K.B., Children.  So, what are your options to ensure that your children can get a college education and have support from the other parent?

This issue is addressed in In the Interest of W.R.B. and B.K.B., Children from the 5th District Court of Appeals in Dallas.     There, the Dallas Court of Appeals addressed the issue of post-majority support which is defined as applying “only to a non-disabled child who is 18 years of age or older and is no longer enrolled in high school or a high-school equivalent program” Tex. Fam. Code Section 154.001(a).  Therefore, this creates or allows for a specific scenario in which the other parent would still be required to make support payments.  In this case, the Court held that the trial court cannot order post-majority support on its own volition but the parties can agree to post-majority support in writing.  In the agreed modification orders, the parties had done just that.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals held that it was proper for the trial court to render the order of post-majority support.  However, the issue then became that the obligor parent stopped paying the post-majority expenses and so the recipient or obligee parent filed an enforcement action seeking reimbursement of all of the expenses, attorneys’ fees and interest.

The Dallas Court of Appeals held that for post-majority support, this is after the child ages out and was based purely upon the parties’ agreement and so therefore it is not enforceable in a family law court under the Texas Family Code.  Rather, the proper avenue is breach of contract.  This is because the agreed orders, with respect to the post-majority support, are considered a contract because it is an agreement of the parties not based upon legal authority.   This is unlike the issue of child support that was ordered which remains enforceable even post-aging out of the children because the Court still maintains jurisdiction over that issue as it was awarded under the family code.

You may not think that this distinction is important, but in the world of family law it is imperative that you understand the difference.  It could be the difference between you actually being the father of a child in the eyes of the law as well as differing burdens of how to overcome that label if you are not the child’s biological father.  In fact, if you are in the middle of a divorce or a suit affecting the parent child relationship, knowing your definitions is crucial when it comes to duties to support children and your rights to visiting those children.

Texas Family Code Section 101.0015 defines alleged father as a man who “alleges himself to be, or is alleged to be, the genetic father or a possible genetic father of a child, but whose paternity has not been determined.”  So, if you think that you are the father of a child but it has not been concluded by court ordered genetic testing—then you are an alleged father.  We see this type of scenario come up in situations such as cases involving the Attorney General’s Office of Texas.  If a woman petitions the Attorney General’s Office for child support, then that agency will file a lawsuit and have all of the alleged fathers served.  It is then your duty to ask for genetic testing if there is any doubt in your mind about whether or not you are the father.  Once genetic testing is completed and paternity is established, you then become an adjudicated father.   Adjudicated father is defined in Texas Family Code Section 160.102(1) as a man who is determined to be the father of a child by the Court.  Therefore, once your paternity is established by results of genetic testing then the Court will name you as the father and proceed forward with child support, visitation, etc.

In contrast, Texas Family Code Section 160.204 defines a presumed father as follows:

Many parents, grandparents, and even professionals do not fully understand their duty to report child abuse let alone the consequences for their failure to report.  But what about such duty to report of just an ordinary person?  That is right; ANYONE who has knowledge or reason to believe that a child is being abused in any way must report it to the appropriate agency.  That agency would be the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, your local law enforcement and even your local district attorney’s office.  The family code does not exclude anyone in the duty to report.  Examples of professionals would be teachers, attorneys, doctors, nurses, and daycare employees.

Chapter 261 of the Texas Family Code encompasses the duty to report, definitions, etc.  Once you have determined what abuse or neglect means in Texas, and you know a child who is being subjected to such acts, you must report it.   Unfortunately, many of the cases we see are children being sexually or physically abused.  Once you learn of this abuse, what do you need to do?

Texas Family Code Section 261.101 legislates and defines those who are required to report as follows:

I am by no means a licensed mental health professional, psychologist or psychiatrist; however if you have been a follower of my blog regarding divorce, child custody, or any family law issue you know that I constantly write about the psychological tolls that the cases take on my clients.  This is because I witness every day the psychological struggles that my clients go through.   Divorce is hard on everyone involved, no matter how you slice it.  Many people hear this, but do not actually understand until they are in the trenches.  However, it is so important to understand, for your mental and physical health, before you are in the trenches that this will be a difficult process and have a list of coping mechanisms to help you through it.

So many people fall into the trap of bitterness, anger and resentment and cannot get past those emotions.    While I will agree that your feelings are legitimate, you also need to work through those feelings so that you can get to the other side and feel a release.  Many people hang on, even after the divorce is finalized.  I have seen what this does to people, and I do not wish it on anyone.  Getting past that anger is not an easy feat, but one that is beyond necessary.

Also, divorce is difficult because it bring change—the familiarity is no longer there, you have to move, your holidays are not the same, you lose a pet, you have to split the time with the children, etc.  Change is so hard and I will be the first to admit that I hate it.  But, change is a part of life; in fact, life is about seasons and weathering those seasons.  How will you weather in a mentally healthy way?

In Texas, if the child custody visitation schedules are court-ordered they are typically either standard possession or expanded standard possession (alternate beginning and ending times).   One parent will have the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence and then the non-primary parent has the visitation schedule.  In contrast to the school year, summer and spring break visitation schedule, the holiday visitation schedule is regardless of distance between the parents’ residences and most courts only focus on Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  However, additional holidays can be requested and ordered such as Easter, Halloween, etc.

In custody orders, holidays are divided out as even and odd years.  So, if you are the primary parent you typically have odd Christmas and even Thanksgiving.   A parent will not have the same year for both holidays.  Because Christmas falls in an odd year this year, the primary parent would have possession of the child from the day the child is released from school until December 28 at noon.  Texas Family Code Section 153.314 specifically sets out the language for the court orders and is follows:

Sec. 153.314.  HOLIDAY POSSESSION UNAFFECTED BY DISTANCE PARENTS RESIDE APART.  The following provisions govern possession of the child for certain specific holidays and supersede conflicting weekend or Thursday periods of possession without regard to the distance the parents reside apart.  The possessory conservator and the managing conservator shall have rights of possession of the child as follows: