Articles Posted in Custody

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:

You may be just beginning your divorce case or you may be in the middle.  Regardless of your current position, there are certain tips that will make this painful process much smoother in the grand scheme of things.  In fact, if you would follow these ten easy tips, you would be worlds ahead of other people going through divorces.

  1. Stress management.  There are a couple of ways our clients are able to work through the stress that occurs with a divorce; here are a couple of my recommendations: Research and find a counselor with whom you are comfortable.  I know, I know—most people hate the word “counseling” and feel as though it would not help them. But, so many of our clients attend counseling and I am amazed at the way they are able to process as we go through the divorce.  It does not matter if it is a pastor, licensed counselor, psychologist, psychiatrist, or a free clinic; you just need to talk to someone.  The emotional toll of the divorce can be so taxing and many people need help with coping; this includes you.  OR if you are not ready to take the counseling step, get out and exercise.  Or even better, you can do both.  Go for a walk with a friend, join a gym, or attend a fitness class that interests you.  Start a fitness routine and it will give you something to look forward to.  And remember what Elle Woods says, “Exercise gives you endorphins.  Endorphins make you happy.  Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t.”
  2. Keep off of social media.  I cannot stress enough—do not post anything on any social media account about your soon to be ex, their paramour, the children, the case, etc.   While it may feel good at the time, it will only hurt you in the long run.  All judges frown upon it and it will make the case harder than it already is.

In Texas family law cases, there are two separate types of protective documents that parties can seek. Restraining orders are not to be confused with protective orders. Most often, parties seek a restraining order in a divorce or suit affecting the parent-child relationship to take exclusive possession of property or the children. If a restraining order is needed, it is important to seek the restraining order from the very beginning of the case or at or near the time the need is realized.

For instance, in cases involving children and concerns for their safety, the requesting party requests the court to order that the children be removed from the other party’s custody and placed into the requesting party’s custody solely until the court hearing. This means that once removed, the other party will not have any access to the children until the hearing. To qualify for a temporary restraining order of this nature, one must present an affidavit that on its face alleges that if the court did not grant the restraining order, then the child’s physical health and/or emotional development would be significantly impaired. In many cases, this arises when it is discovered that other parent’s actions, decisions, or behaviors are dangerous for the children. Examples include drugs, criminal activity, neglect, absence of the other parent due to hospitalization, jail, etc.

Restraining orders are typically sought when initial pleadings are filed and they are presented to the judge ex parte (without the other party present). Your sworn affidavit will be attached to the pleadings for the restraining order and will contain all of the information for the judge as to why he/she should grant the restraining order. The hearing will be set the same day the judge signs the order and it must occur within 14 days. Therefore, the court holds a quick hearing to allow the other party time to present their own case. It also gives you a chance to put on evidence and bolster your case as to why the judge made the right decision to grant the restraining order in the first place. At this hearing, you can request that the court continue the restraining order. Thought, often times, the court will not completely deny access to the children but rather grant supervised visitation by an appropriate supervisor; this is, of course, if supervised access is warranted and proven necessary. With that said, there are some cases when the need for a a restraining order to remove children arises while the case is pending.  You will still need to submit an affidavit and a request for a restraining order.  However, some counties require that you also send notice to the other party/attorney so that they may be present when you present the restraining order to the court initially.  The hearing will still be held 14 days from the date the judge signed the order.

You are a parent who has primary possession of the children and you need financial assistance from the other parent but they are not willing to help out by agreement alone. You realize you are going to have to take additional measures to get anything out of them; more specifically, you visit with an attorney and understand that it is going to take a court order.

Regardless of whether your case is a divorce or suit affecting the parent-child relationship, you will need to include a request for child support within your pleadings. This ensures that you have noticed the other parent that you are seeking this in court and it ensures that you can bring this issue up at the hearing. If your case is just beginning, this issue would be addressed at a temporary orders hearing. You and your attorney will put on evidence of the monthly net resources of the other party. How do you do that if you do not know what the other party is making? Your attorney at Guest & Gray will ensure that the party is noticed and ordered to appear with their financial records so that the judge and/or your attorney can calculate the correct amount of child support. However, if the other party ignores the court order and does not bring their financial records, typically the judge will be agitated with this and start asking the party questions on the stand about their financial information.

Once the monthly net is determined, child support is calculated based upon a percentage amount determined by the number of children involved in the suit as well as other factors. For instance, if you have one child child support would be 20% of the obligor parent’s monthly net resources. If the obligor parent has one other child that they are responsible for (remarries or has another child with another person) lowers the percentage down to 17.5% and then gets lower depending upon the number of additional children outside of your case.

Are you involved in a divorce or child custody suit and you are concerned that your ex constantly leaves your child with strangers or a relative? Then the right of first refusal might be the answer to your concern. The questions then arise as to how it works and would it be best for your child.

If you or your ex are in possession of your child and you are going to be absent for a certain period of time, then you must first call the other parent before you can leave your child with another relative, babysitter, etc. This provision is a mutual agreement between the parties that if you or your ex are not going to be present after a certain number of hours (can range from 2, 4, 5, etc.) then you agree that the other parent can have possession of the child during your absence. As you can imagine, this provision has both negative and positive aspects.

For instance, you know that if your ex is going to be absent during their scheduled period of possession more than 3 hours then you have the first opportunity to take possession of the child during their absence. This allows for additional time with a parent who may have only a standard possession schedule which reinforces Texas’ public policy of frequent and continuing contact between both parents. After all, who would want a babysitter to watch their child if you know the other parent is available? Would you not want your child to have some extra time with the other parent? Maybe, maybe not. You definitely need to discuss the pros and cons with your attorney.

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