When people call for the initial consultation they want to know what the usual steps are for a custody case, divorce case, or Modification/Enforcement case. This above flow chart is the best visual to show what comes first, what’s next,and what to expect. Some steps are optional and sometimes steps get repeated. It depends on the facts of your case and what is happening while the case progresses. A consultation with an attorney will give you a more precise projection of where your case will go.
When will Courts go back to in-person hearings?
Most Texas State Courts have been conducting virtual hearings since the COVID-19 pandemic began. In the Spring and Summer of 2020, Courts, Attorneys, and Litigants had a steep learning curve to get acclimated to virtual hearings.
Courts have continued with virtual hearings since the COVID-19 pandemic began, through 2020, and now through most of 2021. Most major cities in Texas have stayed virtual, while many medium and smaller cities have started transitioning back to in-person hearings. Most courthouses have continued working, in some form or another, throughout the pandemic. Once the vaccines were approved, and a critical amount was administered, courts felt comfortable transitioning back to in-person hearings. Some in-person hearings began occurring in the large and medium sized cities in the Summer of 2021.
As of the date of this post, the COVID-19 Delta variant has spiked cases and some courts are either going back to virtual hearings or slowing/stopping their expected transitions back to in-person hearings. Each county courthouse makes decisions on in-person vs virtual hearings with each Judge having authority over their own courtrooms for details of mask wearing (or not), physical barriers in the courtroom (or not), and other accommodations.
In Texas, the Texas Supreme Court has issued many Emergency Orders regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster. This has guided the courts, attorneys, and litigants on what special, short-term changes have been approved for Texas State Courts.
As the pandemic continues to unfold, and new rules and recommendations are promulgated by the Federal, State, and Local governments, the status of virtual vs in-person hearings will continue to be in flux. Local attorneys in your jurisdiction, through the efforts of their local bar associations and courthouses, will know the status of your court and your hearing.
How to Get Child Support Offsets
When child support is unpaid it builds up as an arrears. In Texas, the Attorney General’s child support division keeps track of these child support arrears and the past-due balance. This includes child support and any cash-medical-support owed for one parent paying the other for monthly health insurance costs.
In Texas, sometimes child support builds up because the custody schedule has changed and parents agree between themselves to start sharing custody or flip custody. When this happens they assume child support will automatically stop. This is not the case. You need a new court order changing the child support before anything will stop or change from the old order.
If you have this situation, where custody was changed but child support was not, you might be entitled to offsets on that child support that built up during the changed possession time. The credit is only available for those changed months and you only get a credit for the amount due under the old order, not the other parents theoretical child support they might’ve owed due to the change in custody. You need to go back to court if you want child support from the other parent following a custody switch.
Texas Family Code 157.008 provides
Sec. 157.008. AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE TO MOTION FOR ENFORCEMENT OF CHILD SUPPORT. (a) An obligor may plead as an affirmative defense in whole or in part to a motion for enforcement of child support that the obligee voluntarily relinquished to the obligor actual possession and control of a child. (b) The voluntary relinquishment must have been for a time period in excess of any court-ordered periods of possession of and access to the child and actual support must have been supplied by the obligor. (c) ... (d) An obligor who has provided actual support to the child during a time subject to an affirmative defense under this section may request reimbursement for that support as a counterclaim or offset against the claim of the obligee. (e) An action against the obligee for support supplied to a child is limited to the amount of periodic payments previously ordered by the court.
This means that, as long as you file a claim putting everyone on notice that you will argue this in court, that the other parent agreed to the custody change (you didn’t just take off with the child(ren) over their objection), and you’ve supplied care for the children while with you. Proof can be school records showing the change of address, doctor bills or paperwork showing the new address, and care can be any type of financial support, i.e., food, clothing, shelter. This means the children have to actually live with you, not with another family member, friend, or on their own.
These claims and providing proof in the right way during a hearing can be tricky. It’s best to enlist the help of an attorney if this is a factor in your case.
Which parent has the right to consent to COVID vaccine for child(ren)?
In the next few months I will get the question, “I want to give our children the new COVID vaccine but the other parent won’t let me. Can I just give my kids the COVID vaccine without their father’s/mother’s consent?” Once vaccines roll out there is likely to be initial wariness about their safety and effectiveness until the full medical reviews are known. Concerned parents will want the experts to weigh in on the studies. They will want to know the consensus of the medical community on the various options.
If you have a Texas court order you should have specific rights and duties spelled out in the paperwork. In most Court papers those are in the first 5-10 pages. Look at your court orders to see what is specifically awarded to you and the other parent. If you have no court orders then the general law would apply.
Independent vs joint vs tiebreaker language
Texas Family Code 151.001 lists the usual rights and duties each parent is awarded. The one that would pertain this this question is the right to make invasive medical decisions. Court orders have this right spelled out specifically. Usually this right is an “independent” right, meaning the parent that has the child with them can make invasive medical decisions without the express consent of the other parent. They just have to inform the other parent afterwards. Sometimes the right to make invasive medical decisions must be “jointly” made by agreement of both parents. If this is how your Order reads then you must have the consent of the other parent. A more sophisticated Order will say these medical decisions must be jointly made, but if the parties cannot or will not agree then you follow the advice of the doctor. This would be “joint with tiebreaker” language. That would cover you if the doctor recommends something but the other parent will not consent.
If you are stuck and cannot get the other parent to agree then your option would be mediation or a court filing requesting the Judge give approval (or deny approval) for the vaccine. It will be a battle of the experts for the Judge to decide the best course of action. This could be an expensive and lengthy battle depending on your area’s court availability and the particulars of your case. It is best to consult with an attorney who is familiar with your local courts/judges and make a recommendation based on your specific facts.
Custody during COVID
The Texas Supreme Court has issued a new Emergency Order, number 26, on September 18, 2020. It goes into effect October 1 and extends many of the provisions of prior orders. These Orders must be followed by all courts in Texas until they expire or are modified by another Order.
Specifically for Custody, the Texas Supreme Court’s order states:
“In determining a person’s right to possession of and access to a child under a court ordered possession schedule in a Suit Affecting the Patent-Child Relationship, the existing trial court order shall control in all instances. Possession of and access to a child shall not be affected by any shelter-in-place order or other other restricting movement issued by a government entity that arises from the pandemic. The original published school schedule shall also control, and possession and access shall not be affected by the school’s closure that arises from the pandemic. Nothing herein prevents parties from altering a possession schedule by agreement if allowed by their court order(s), or courts from modifying their orders on an emergency basis or otherwise…this Order expires December 1, 2020.”
This means that if you already have a court order in place then you need to follow that schedule. If your court order says visits start when “school begins” or when “school ends” then you need to follow the the published school schedule for when school starts and stops. Judges are undecided on those Fridays under an expended standard schedule. Should a non-primary parent have the ability to home-school at their house on the Friday instead of dropping off back to Primary parent’s house for the “school day” and picking back up from primary parent at the end of the “school day”? Your Order’s specific language is going to be key in this situation. Review it and see what says to make sure you are following it as best as possible.
Parents are strongly encouraged to cooperate and assist each other. The last lines of the Order says that. Judges in the central Texas counties have strongly stated that if one parent steps up and starts helping but then uses that as a reason for a future modification (or child support change) once COVID fears have subsided, the Judge will not look favorably on that parent. They want parents to help each other without fear of it being used against them later. For Example; if a Mom can’t stay home and has to go into work and Dad steps up and does the home schooling/virtual learning because his schedule can handle that, then Dad tries to later cancel child support or change custody based on the kids being with him every school day during the Fall, the Judge is not going to be impressed by that. This is an unprecedented pandemic and Judges are expecting parents to pitch in and help each other for the good of their children. We’re going to have to get to the other side of this and then take stock of what’s the new “normal” schedules for the kids before filing modifications.
Reimbursement Claims in Divorce
Texas Family Code 3.401 – 3.410 deal with reimbursement claims. Reimbursement claims come up in Texas Divorces when a spouse owns property before marriage and still own it when the divorce happens. Yes, you can trace sold property into other purchases, but that’s a tracing issue and beyond the score of this article. The separate property owned before marriage is likely to stay “separate property” and so not divided as party of the Community Estate. However, the separate property may have been enriched by the community estate, and so, a spouse can ask for the separate property to repay the community estate.
The increase in the separate property is not a market value increase. It is only the difference in the secured debt attached to that property. The decrease in the value of the debt (reduction in principal) and increase in value any improvements (increase in market value to the property not out of pocket cost of improvements made).
DECREASE IN SECURED DEBT
How this usually plays out in a divorce is: a house owned prior to marriage, a few years go by, and now a divorce happens. Community funds were used to pay down the mortgage all those years. That’s a valid reimbursement claim, the reduction in the mortgage during marriage. That’s NOT the value of every mortgage payment! Mortgage payments are payments of principal, interest, and usually escrow/insurance all rolled into one. Reimbursement is JUST the different in the old mortgage amount at the time of marriage to what the balance is now, at the time of divorce. Vehicles owned before marriage, but paid down during the marriage, follow the same idea; value of loan at time of marriage vs. value of loan at time of divorce, difference is reimbursement claim.
INCREASE IN VALUE
Increases in the market value of the house are not considered in reimbursement claims unless the increase is based on improvements made (with community funds) during marriage. New pools, remodeled kitchens, large improvements, not paint and curtains. Even then, the reimbursement is based on how much the house’s value changed based on just the improvements. Usually an appraiser or realtor is called to give two values, one with the improvements and one if the improvements had not been done. That’s the number used for reimbursement claims not how much was actually spent in materials and labor on the projects. One person’s home makeover masterpiece is another person’s design fail. Beauty (value) is in the eye of the buyer.
Spouses can ask for offsets to reimbursement claims, but “use and enjoyment” is not an allowable offset if it relates to the primary or secondary residence. You can’t say a reimbursement claim is bogus because the spouse “would’ve been paying rent somewhere else so it should be even!” Family Code 3.402(c) forbids that.
Reimbursement claims are tricky, so it’s important to consult with a local attorney to know how to value the claims as well as how they ultimately affect division of the remaining community estate.
Custody when schools go virtual
What happens to the visitation schedule when or if schools switch to a virtual learning schedule? Do children still follow the same schedule? Where do pickups and drop offs happen if not at school? Where would the child be if they’re not “in school?”
In most family law cases there is a court order the specifies the times and locations of pickups and drop offs. Texas cases have very detailed exchange days, times, and locations. If you have an existing court order, review it and make sure the answers are not already there.
Where the children will have virtual “school” time is not as clear. Some court orders provide that a parent’s time ends when they drop the child off for school in the morning, but the other parent’s time does not “start” until school is dismissed. Judges have not weighed in on whether the dropping off parent can keep the child at their house or if they need to go to the other parent’s house for “school” that day. Some parents may fight and want school only at one house. Others may not be able to work from home and so neither can have the young child alone at their house during school hours. Find a solution where school responsibilities are shared. Adjust the schedule as necessary to find the best fit as the schools and teachers work out the bugs in the system. Change is the only certainty. Expect modifications as the school year gets closer.
Parents are encouraged to think of creative solutions to their unique problems. Other family members, daycares, neighborhood resources/friends, all can be coordinated to assist those parents struggling to find coverage. The parent(s) who are solution oriented will avoid costly litigation and court. Do not think of it as you against the other parent. Think of it as both of you, as parents, against the problem. Solve it together.
Be fair, be equal, and work together. You don’t want the Judge, a stranger to your family and your children, at the courthouse deciding what’s best for your child(ren).
Ransomware Hack Disables Texas Appellate Courts
Over last week and weekend (May 8 – 15) the Texas Appellate Courts and Texas Supreme Court have been the target of a ransomware hack that disabled their systems. See article on Law.com
The Appellate Courts have setup a temporary site at www.txcourts.net to assist litigants and maintain functionality while they sort out the issue. The courts have assured the legal community that trial courts were not affected, just the appellate courts. The appellate courts and staff are continuing to work on cases and conduct court business while the IT staff handle the issue.
Williamson County Standing Order
Williamson County has recently adopted and approved a Standing Order. See below for a copy. This Order is similar to many other standing orders for other larger Texas Counties.
A Standing Order is issued from all the District and County Judges and applies to every Divorce and child Custody case when filed. Williamson County’s Standing Order does not apply to modification cases due to it’s immediate restriction on moving a child out of State, which may be in conflict with parties’ prior custody orders.
When parties are filing their Original Petitions for Divorce, Suit to Establish Paternity, or Suit Affecting Parent Child Relationship, these Standing Orders immediately go into effect and dictate the actions of the parties. The Orders are attached to the served papers and parties are deemed to have knowledge of them once their pleadings are filed and/or served in the case. Pro Se (self represented) parties should review these Standing Orders carefully and follow them throughout the case, unless the Court/Judge makes specific Orders otherwise.
Possible repercussions in violating these Standing Orders could include, after a hearing on the alleged violations, the Judge making Orders in the case to protect child(ren) and property from the violating party. This could have drastic consequences in your case.
Legal Aid and Volunteer Legal Services
There is help for those who cannot afford traditional legal services. Beyond the other low-cost options many attorneys offer (flat fee, limited scope, etc.) there are more low-cost options. Some parties cannot afford traditional attorney representation or a choice is made that funds would be better used somewhere else other than traditional attorney representation.
Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, AKA “Legal Aid” is an organization to help those who cannot afford traditional attorney-client representation. Their focus is on victims of family violence or in dire need of help due to unfortunate circumstances. Legal Aid’s website had information on applying for assistance as well as general information. They can do phone screenings as well if you call 1-888-988-9996. The best time to call is in the morning starting at 8:30am. There is a huge demand for their services so be patient if the line is busy or goes unanswered. Call back or go online to start the screening process.
Many will not qualify for Legal Aid’s free assistance. There are other options in the Central Texas area. One option is Volunteer Legal Services (VLS). They offer in-person clinics to help those dealing with a variety of issues, from family law, civil cases, and evictions. They cannot help with criminal, immigration, or contested probate cases. They do not take calls or answer questions at their offices. You must sign up for a clinic and attend in person. Here is a link to their website with information on the days and locations of the clinics in the Austin area. Local volunteer attorneys are there at the clinics to consult with you for a limited period of time. Have your case documents with you and be ready to take notes during the short time you have with the attorney.
The Travis County Law Library, located in downtown Austin, is another resource. They have librarians who can point you in the right direction for various forms as well as help with research topics. This is a good second-step after consulting with attorneys or other legal experts to determine the issues of your case.