Parents have fundamental rights to make certain decisions regarding their children.  These rights can make it difficult for a non-parent to gain custody or visitation rights to children over the objection of a fit parent in a Texas custody case.  A Texas appeals court recently held a trial court could not award an unrelated person visitation and access to children when the father was fit.

The father filed for divorce in 2018.  The court signed temporary orders naming the mother and father joint managing conservators of the children.

A person who was unrelated to the children, identified as “B.B.,” intervened and requested a temporary restraining order.  She alleged the children had been living with her during the case.  She claimed the mother had mental health problems and had physically abused one of the children.  The court issued a temporary restraining order and ordered the parents not to remove the children from B.B.’s possession until a hearing occurred.

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When a parent seeks modification of Texas custody order, he or she must a substantial and material change in circumstances since the previous order.  Generally, the change must be material to the modification the parent is requesting.  A mother recently appealed a custody order modification allowing the father to have unsupervised visits, arguing he had not shown a material and substantial change in circumstances.

The mother filed a Suit Affecting Parent Child Relationship (SAPCR) asking the court to limit the father’s access to their daughter after he received a DWI in 2012.  Her affidavit detailed a number of events related to the father’s intoxication during the marriage.  She asked to be named sole managing conservator.  She also asked that the father be allowed only supervised visitation and that he be prohibited from drinking for 12 hours before and during the visitation.

The father was from Canada and had returned there.  He did not contest the suit and a default judgment was entered.  It named the mother sole managing conservator and limited the father to supervised visitation.

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Although courts are still open and conducting Zoom hearings, there is no doubt that many court cases are moving along more slowly than otherwise desired as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A potentially more practical and expedient method of divorce is collaborative law. Continue Reading ›

As cases of COVID-19 are continually popping up in the North Texas region (currently 155 confirmed cases in Dallas County and growing) and with the recent “Stay Home Stay Safe” Order that went into effect at 11:59 PM on March 23, 2020, parents are scrambling to find reliable answers to their questions regarding possession schedules and quarantine, as well as concerns about child support. These are questions that are relatively unprecedented in today’s world, and with the courts recently ruling on several of these topics, this blog seeks to provide helpful updates during this difficult time.

In its March 17, 2020 emergency order, the Supreme Court of Texas, ordered that court-ordered possession schedules remain in accordance with any original published school calendar regardless of the newly extended Spring Breaks or school closures. This order is effective until May 8, 2020 or until further notice. However, as the situation continues to ramp up, and fears about this pandemic are at an all-time high, many parents want to take precautionary measures to keep their family safe.

Various concerns have arisen regarding possession schedules when one parent is quarantined for possible contraction of COVID-19. The Dallas County family courts have recently released a statement encouraging parents to keep open lines of communication with and one another and to make all decisions with the well-being and health of the child as the primary concern. This communication should include notifying the other parent of any exposure to or a positive diagnosis of COVID-19, as well as discussing any actions necessary to ensure the child’s safety. Unfortunately, disagreements regarding the custody or possession of a child may arise, and it is imperative that you consult with your attorney to discuss questions about establishing alternative schedules before making any decisions with your co-parent or ex-spouse

A court generally may not amend or change the property division made in a Texas divorce decree.  The court may issue an order to enforce the property division, but such an order may only clarify the prior order or assist in its implementation.  If a court improperly amends or modifies the substantive property division in the final divorce decree, it is acting beyond its power and that order is unenforceable. Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 9.007.  Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDRO) are separate orders that set forth the distribution of retirement plan assets.  They are considered a type of enforcement or clarification order and cannot change the property division made in the divorce decree.

In a recent case, an ex-wife sought an additional QDRO years after the divorce was finalized.  The couple divorced in 1995, and the parties have been in litigation for the past several years regarding the husband’s retirement accounts.

The divorce decree awarded the ex-wife 50% “of any and all sums … related to any … retirement plan, pension plan, … or other benefit program existing by reason of [ex-husband’s] past, present, or future employment, including without limitation, [ex-husband’s] Retirement Fund, Provident Fund, and SPIF Fund with Shell Oil Company per Qualified Domestic Relations Orders …”  The trial court signed a QDRO awarding the ex-wife half the funds in the ex-husband’s Shell Provident Fund on the date of the divorce.  The court found the total community property interest in the Shell Provident Fund was the total amount of contributions, interest, and earnings made or accrued by or on behalf of the ex-husband into any of the Shell Provident Fund accounts.  The QDRO stated the ex-wife was “divested of all right, title, and interest in and to any balance remaining in any account of the Shell Provident Fund…” and that the fund would be discharged from all obligations to her when full payment was made pursuant to the QDRO.  It also said it would become an integral part of the divorce decree.

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Texas family law was written before marriage between same-sex partners was recognized.  Many of the statutes are written in gendered terms that do not contemplate the possibility of marriage between same-sex partners or parents who are the same sex.  A recent case considered whether the female spouse of a child’s biological and birth mother was a parent under Texas law.

The appellant had a child at the time of the marriage and the parties discussed having a child together.  A friend of the parties agreed to be their sperm donor.  They agreed the appellee would carry the child.  According to the appeals court’s opinion, the appellant performed the insemination in the parties’ apartment.   The appellant accompanied the appellee to most of her doctor’s appointments.  She was at the hospital when the baby was born and took family leave to be with the baby. When the parties divorced, the trial court found the appellant was also a parent to the child and ordered her to pay child support. She appealed.

The appellant argued “parents” are defined as a mother and father in the Texas Family Code.  The appellee argued that same-sex marriage and related benefits are recognized in the United States pursuant to U.S. Supreme Court decisions and Texas law must be read in light of those decisions.

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In a Texas divorce, the division of community property must be just and right.  The goal is an equitable, but not necessarily equal, division. A party may not get the specific items that he or she wants, but that does not necessarily mean that the division of property is not just and right. In a recent case, the wife challenged the specifics of the property division.

According to the court’s opinion, the husband’s retirement annuity was worth $234,000 when he retired from his job. There was evidence that he withdrew funds from the account and hid them from the wife. There was evidence that he used the funds for household expenses and expenses related to the couple’s horses.  The retirement account was worth approximately $50,000 at the time of trial.

The husband admitted that he did not report the withdrawals on the joint tax returns for several years, resulting in a $20,000 liability to the IRS. After the separation, the wife hired a CPA to seek innocent spouse status for her. She testified that she wanted the husband to pay the $3,000 for the CPA’s services.

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In calculating child support, a Texas court must consider each parent’s net resources.  The Texas Family Code defines which resources are to be included, and which types of resources are excluded from consideration.  In a recent case, a wife challenged an order to pay child support and medical support, partly because the court had improperly considered certain resources.

The husband testified that he lacked health insurance and did not have access to private insurance.  Although the wife did not appear at the trial, the husband was previously the trustee of her supplemental social security income (SSI) and testified that he believed that she still received $750 per month.  There was no other evidence of her income or ability to work.

The trial court designated the husband as the sole managing conservator of the children and ordered the wife to pay child and medical support.  The court calculated the payment based on her SSI.

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Under Texas family law, a court may grant grandparents reasonable possession and access to a grandchild if three conditions are met.  First, at least one of the child’s parents, whether adoptive or biological, must have parental rights to the child.  Second, the grandparent must overcome the presumption the child’s parent is acting in the child’s best interest by showing that denying the grandparent possession or access would result in significant impairment to the child’s health or well-being.  Finally, the grandparent must be the parent of the child’s parent, and that parent must have been incarcerated during the past three months, have been found incompetent, be deceased, or not have possession or access to the child.  TEX. FAM. CODE ANN. § 153.433.

In a recent case, a father challenged an order allowing the maternal grandparents possession and access to his children.  The parents and children stayed with the grandparents while they looked for a house when they moved to Texas from California.  The grandparents supported the family so the parents could save up to buy the home.  After the parents bought a home nearby, the children regularly visited their grandparents, sometimes overnight.  The grandparents would take the children to school and attend school functions.  The grandmother testified she felt she had assumed the role of parent.

The grandmother testified both parents were alcoholics.  The mother’s friend testified the parents had a tense and unhealthy relationship.  There was testimony that the mother sent the children to stay with the grandparents when the situation at home grew tense.  The father’s friend testified the father left the children with the grandparents when he went to bars and nudist colonies.  He also testified the father told him he often argued with the mother, but did not state the arguments ever turned physical.

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Texas family law allows the parties to a divorce to enter into a binding mediated settlement agreement (MSA).  If the agreement meets certain requirements, a party is entitled to judgment on the agreement.  In some cases, however, one party may wish to challenge a mediated settlement agreement.  In a recent case, a wife challenged the enforceability of a mediated settlement agreement.

The couple was married for about 10 years when the wife decided to end the marriage.  She sought a mediator, and the parties attended mediation without attorneys and executed a written MSA.

The MSA made the parents joint managing conservators, with the husband having the right to designate the kids’ primary residence.  The parties agreed the husband would keep the marital home and the wife would not pay child support.  The MSA required the wife to file the divorce petition within 10 days.  The MSA further provided the case would be finalized any time after May 1, 2015.

The husband filed a divorce petition nine days after the MSA was executed.  He asked the court to approve and render judgment consistent with the MSA.  The wife filed an answer with a general denial.  The husband and his attorney appeared in court, but the wife did not receive notice of the hearing and did not appear.  The trial court rendered oral judgment on the MSA at the hearing.

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