What is conservatorship?

The majority of new divorce or child custody clients who walk into my office say they want either “joint custody” or “sole custody.”  The first question I ask is, “What do you mean by that?”  The legal world has different definitions than the ones most people use in their everyday vocabulary, which can make starting the custody process a little confusing.

In Texas, you will not see the term “custody” in a divorce decree (or in any other child custody order).  Instead, the order will deal with “conservatorship” and “possession and access.”  (However, the Attorney General does refer to parents as the “custodial” and “non-custodial” parents.)

“Conservatorship” deals with the rights and responsibilities of the parents (or other legal caretaker of the child.)   In most situations, the parents are named “joint managing conservators.”  This generally gives the parents pretty equal rights.  For example, as joint managing conservators, both parents would normally have the right to consent to invasive medical procedures, make decisions regarding the child’s education, etc.  The rights can be tweaked, based on the circumstances of the parents.

In certain situations, often involving domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, or an absentee parent, one parent is named the “sole managing conservator” and the other is named a “possessory conservator.”  Again, this designation relates solely to the rights of the parent and has nothing to do with how often the parent sees the child.  The sole managing conservator is given certain exclusive rights, such as the right to consent to an invasive procedure and the right to make educational decisions.

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