In most courts in Collin, Denton and Dallas counties, mediation is required before you can have a final trial in a family law matter.  In some of the courts it isn’t required but is “strongly encouraged.”  In my opinion, almost every case is appropriate for mediation before you have a final trial.

Mediation is a confidential process that takes place outside of the courthouse.  The parties hire a neutral, third party mediator to help try and get the case settled.    Although some mediations occasionally involve an opening session with all parties, I have not seen that happen in a family law mediation in many years.  Each party sits in a separate room with his or her own attorney.  The mediator goes back and forth between the rooms to help the parties reach a settlement.  The parties usually won’t even see each other, unless they happen to cross paths walking to the restroom or the parking lot.

Mediation can be a very slow process.  Most divorces involving child custody issues will take a full, eight hour day.  Sometimes they can last well beyond eight hours if there are a lot of issues in dispute.  Cases involving only property issues can take less time unless there are significant property issues to address.  Although many mediators offer half day (four hour) mediations, it is extremely rare for a family law case to settle in that short of a time.

Although mediation can get expensive when you add up the mediator’s fees and attorney’s fees on both sides, it is usually a lot less expensive than going to trial.  Further, it is a great way to help get cases settled in creative ways.   Judges are limited in what they can order in a trial, but the parties can agree to all kinds of arrangements at mediation.

The vast majority of my clients are convinced that their cases  have no hope of settling at mediation, but the vast majority of those cases do actually settle at mediation.  Parties tend to think that if they cannot settle the dispute on their own, why would it settle at mediation?  But the reality is that mediators have jobs for a reason.  Their help can be critical to getting cases settled.

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Waivers of service are quite common in family law cases in Texas.  They do exactly what they say – they waive service of process.   A waiver of service does NOT mean that the other person is not contesting anything in the case.

When I am trying to approach a divorce, child custody case, or any other family law matter in the most amicable way possible, I almost always ask the opposing party to sign a waiver of service.  This means that we will not be having a constable or private process server take the petition and citation and hand it to the person.  Instead, the opposing party is acknowledging receipt of the petition, providing up-to-date contact information for the court, and saying that he does not need to be served.  The waiver of service must be signed before a notary and filed with the court.  I generally have the opposing party return the waiver to me for filing.

In general, I have no issue with someone signing a waiver of service.  However, if you are asked to sign one, you need to read it very carefully to ensure you are not waiving any of your other rights.   I have seen waivers prepared by other attorneys that say the person is waiving the right to be notified of any future hearings or things like that.  The purpose of the waiver should be solely to waive being served and to enter your appearance before the court, nothing else.

If you someone presents you with a family law petition and a waiver of service and you plan to hire an attorney, you do not need to sign the waiver.  Instead, take the petition to the attorney.  The attorney will answer on your behalf.  This still eliminates the need to be served.

Why would we want to eliminate serving someone?  There are a few reasons.  First, most people do not want to be served, especially at work.  Therefore, asking them to sign a waiver eliminates that potentially unpleasant experience and sets the stage for a more amicable process.  Second, it costs money to serve someone.  You need to pay the clerk to issue a citation (and maybe more, depending on the circumstances), plus you need to pay for service by either the constable or a private process server.  I almost always use a private process server, as I find it to be the most effective means of serving someone.  However, if the opposing party is difficult to find or dodges service, the costs can skyrocket.

There are times when I do not use a waiver of service and move straight to serving someone.  Most often this occurs when the client needs urgent relief through some type of emergency order and/or temporary orders.  If we need to set a hearing right away, we will need to serve the other side.

If you are presented with a waiver of service and have any doubts about what you are signing, it is best to contact an attorney before signing.

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In any family law case (divorce, child custody, child support, etc.), you may hear the term “discovery” used.  Although there are many kinds of discovery, this term is typically used to refer to formal, written discovery.  Common types of written discovery include a Request for Disclosure, Requests for Production, Interrogatories, and Requests for Admissions.

A Request for Disclosure is a standard set of questions that comes from Rule 194 of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.  It is used in all types of civil cases, not just family law, and therefore many of the questions are not relevant in a family law case.  There is some helpful information to be gained from a Request for Disclosure, such as a list of persons with knowledge of relevant facts, so it is still common to see this type of discovery in family law matters.

Requests for Production ask a party to produce documents or other tangible things.  There is no limit to the number of requests for production a party can request, and it can become extremely time-consuming for a party to gather the requested documents.  It can also be extremely time-consuming to review the documents produced by the other party.  Examples of commonly requested documents are tax returns, school records, medical records, diaries, e-mails and texts.

Interrogatories are questions that seek a written answer from the other party.  In most case, parties are limited to serving 25 interrogatories on the other side, so it is important to make them count.  Common interrogatories include asking for a list of trial witnesses, asking for information on medical issues, or asking for specific financial information.

Requests for Admissions ask the opposing party to admit or deny a certain fact.  I normally find that people will deny almost everything based on some type of technicality, so I don’t use Requests for Admissions too often.  There are certain cases where there are facts that you really want the other party to admit or deny, so on occasion these can be helpful.

In my practice, I rarely initiate written discovery.  Most often I feel it is an unnecessary expense for the client where a lot of needless information is sought.  If there is a document or information I need, most attorneys will hand it over voluntarily.  That type of informal discovery streamlines the process tremendously.  However, if the other party serves written discovery, I will always serve written discovery on that party.  Some firms make it a standard practice to use written discovery in most cases.   If you are served with written discovery, it is important to meet the deadlines to answer or any valid objections you may have will be waived.

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Temporary restraining orders (“TROs”) can encompass a wide variety of issues in family law cases dealing with both property and children.  Often they involve allegations of domestic violence or abuse.  A temporary restraining order is granted without a hearing based on affidavits by the requesting party.

In most cases, TROs are requested at the very beginning with the petition is filed.  In that case, the judge will grant the TRO “ex parte,” which means that the other side, the respondent, does not have the opportunity to appear or respond.  The judge simply reviews the petitioner’s affidavits and determines whether or not the affidavits, on their face, provides enough to grant the temporary restraining order.  The respondent can attempt to dissolve the TRO once it is entered, but most often it is dealt with at the hearing.

Occasionally something happens during a case that makes one side request a TRO.  In that case, the attorney for the party requesting the TRO must notify the other side that a request for a TRO is being filed and give the other side the opportunity to appear before the judge and contest the entry of the TRO.  If the other side files for a TRO against my client, I quickly get my client (and any other relevant witnesses) to draft affidavits with their side of the story.  I then meet the other attorney at the courthouse when he is presenting the TRO to the judge.  I give the judge my affidavits and try to prevent the entry of the TRO, if possible.  In cases where there are allegations of abuse, the judge will almost always err on the side of caution and grant the TRO pending a hearing.  The judge just simply cannot take the risk that the allegations are true.

After a TRO is granted, the court must hold a hearing within 14 days.  If there is no hearing within the time limit, the TRO will expire absent an agreement or another court order extending the TRO.

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If I had a nickel for every post I saw in a Facebook group looking for an “aggressive” family lawyer or a “pit bull” of a family law attorney, I would be a rich woman.  These types of requests make me cringe.  Instead, I wish people would seek out a good, knowledgeable attorney who will look out for their best interests and help them resolve the case in the best possible way.

More often than not, “aggressive” does not achieve those goals.  I know a handful of other attorneys who I would put into the “aggressive, pit bull” category, and they are awful to work with.  I feel terrible for my clients when there is one of these folks on the other side.  It almost always means higher bills, more discovery, more time spent in court, and more heartache in an already difficult situation.  Sure, you may be mad at your soon-to-be ex-spouse, and you may want to go after him with guns blazing.  An aggressive attorney is ready to go with those guns blazing at all costs, but is that really in your or your children’s best interest?  Or, would you be better off reaching a reasonable, fair settlement and moving on with your life without wasting tens of thousands of dollars on attorney’s fees?

In my opinion, the ideal attorney will do a great job on your behalf in court, but she will also help you try and avoid going to court at all.  She will work hard to keep your costs down, help you understand the process, help you know what is necessary and what is not in terms of discovery and court hearings, help you understand the most likely outcome if you do end up in court, and help you settle the case, if at all possible.

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Most, if not all, of the courts in Collin County, Dallas County and Denton County require the parties to mediate before going to trial.  Even when mediation is not required, I almost always recommend to clients that they attend mediation.  Mediation allows you to come up with creative solutions that a judge could never order.  It also allows you to have control over the final result, which a trial does not give you.

Probably 90-95% of my clients are sure that mediation is pointless going in, as they know that neither party is going to compromise enough to reach a settlement.  Yet somehow 90-95% of the cases that I take to mediation end up settling.  There is a reason that mediators have jobs.  If the parties and attorneys could settle cases on their own, mediation would not be necessary.

Typically at mediation, my client and I sit in one room and the opposing party and his or her attorney sit in another room.  At most mediations, we never even see the other side.  The mediator (who may or may not be an attorney) goes back and forth between the rooms to try and help the parties reach a settlement.  By definition, the mediator is neutral.  If the mediator takes sides, he or she will almost certainly lose the ability to negotiate with the other side.  The mediator will often play devil’s advocate in both rooms.

In my experience, the best family law mediators are attorneys with extensive family law experience who know the judges and who know what the most likely outcome at trial is going to be.  They also have a very good grasp of the Texas Family Code to be able to guide the parties when they want something they would never get in court.

Mediation is a slow process.  Although some mediations can be done in half a day, I have been in mediations lasting anywhere from 8-13 hours for family law cases.  The mediators generally provide snacks and lunch.

Occasionally I hear from people who are interested in mediating without lawyers.  Although this may sound like a good idea in theory, it can be a dangerous proposition.  Mediators cannot give legal advice, even when they are attorneys.  This can really cause a party to be blind in the negotiating process, as he or she will have no clue what the law is or what he or she is really entitled to.

Overall, I think mediation is a wonderful process and very helpful in reaching amicable resolutions in family law cases.

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Temporary orders can be entered in any family law case to govern what will happen with various different aspects of the case while it is pending.  Temporary orders can relate to both the child(ren) and other financial matters.

Typical temporary orders related to children in either a divorce or custody case include: (1) designation of conservators as either temporary joint managing conservators or temporary sole managing conservator / possessory conservator; (2) the possession schedule be for the child with each of the parents; and (3) whether child support will be paid and, if so, how much.

Examples of additional financial matters to consider for temporary orders in a divorce case are: (1) who will get primary use of the marital residence; (2) how community bills are going to be paid during a pending divorce; (3) whether or not one party will pay temporary spousal maintenance to the other; and (4) who will get primary use of any vehicle(s).

Temporary orders can also govern how the parties treat each other while the case is pending and what is said or done in front of the children.  Temporary orders can either be reached by agreement, or they can be ordered by a court after a hearing.  Temporary orders hearings are like mini trials.  In Collin County, temporary orders hearings are limited to twenty minutes per side, which can really limit what you can do.  In other counties, such as Dallas County and Denton County, you are often given significantly more time for a temporary orders hearing.

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There are certain aspects of a divorce decree that can be modified later and certain aspects that cannot.  Issues regarding the children (conservatorship, possession and access, child support, health insurance, and almost any other issues related to the children) can be addressed in a modification.  To modify, one party needs to file a Petition to Modify Parent-Child Relationship.  There is no waiting period for a modification, so if the parties are in agreement, a modification order can be entered almost immediately after the petition is filed.  If the parties are not in agreement, the case would follow the standard child custody case procedures.

You cannot, however, modify property or debt division from a divorce decree.  For this reason, property and debt division should never be tied to child support or custody issues.  (For example, if one party agrees to take a smaller piece of the pie in the property division in exchange for receiving higher monthly child support, this would be a huge mistake.  The monthly child support amount can always be modified later, but the person who took the smaller piece of the property pie can never go back and reclaim what was rightfully his or hers.)   This is also a very key reason why parties should consult with attorneys before agreeing on property or debt issues in a divorce.  I have seen it time and time again where someone makes a critical mistake with regards to property (usually a house) in a pro se divorce decree.  They have no way of fixing the problem down the road because you cannot modify a decree on that issue.

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The Texas Family Code provides guidelines for calculating child support.  The guidelines are followed in the vast majority of cases.   If you are involved in a child support case with the Attorney General, you can be confident that the guidelines will be followed almost 100% of the time.

The guidelines calculate child support based on net income.  This does not necessarily mean the same thing as “take home pay.”  Net income is calculated as gross income minus the correct amount of taxes (which may or may not be the amount withheld from the paycheck), and minus health insurance for the child(ren).  (There are a few other things that can be subtracted but they do not apply to most people.)

If the parent paying child support is providing insurance for more than just the children (himself or herself, a spouse, etc.), then it is important to figure out the cost for just the children.  Generally an employer will have charts showing the cost of insurance for the employee only, employee plus spouse, employee plus children, and employee plus family. Only the cost of insurance for the children will be factored into the child support calculation.  The parent paying child support will be usually be responsible for either providing the insurance for paying a set amount to the other parent for the cost of insurance.

If the parent paying child support has no other children outside of the case at issue, child support is calculated as 20% for one child, 25% for two children, 30% for three, 35% for four, 40% for five, and “not less than the amount for five children” for six children.  The percentages change if the parent paying child support is responsible for supporting other children.  For example, if a parent has one child with the parent involved in our case and one child with someone else, the child support guideline for the child in this case would be 17.50%.

Generally child support is capped at the first $8,550 in net resources.  A custodial parent can bust through that cap if he or she can show that the child’s needs exceed the presumptive amount of support.

Although the family code does provide reasons for deviating from the child support guidelines, it is pretty rare to see a judge order anything different than the guidelines.  I most often see courts vary from the guidelines when the non-custodial parent has more possession time than a standard possession order.  The parents can always agree to a different amount and it will usually be approved.

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If you owe child support and currently have an arrearage (past due child support), you may find out the hard way at tax time that the Attorney General can take your refund and apply it to your arrearage.  They can take this action even without a court order specifically authorizing them to take a tax refund.  I have seen refunds taken even when the person was making monthly payments on the arrearage when the arrearage was large enough.  If you are married, this could also impact your spouse’s refund.

If the Attorney General takes your refund, it is very difficult (and maybe even impossible) to try and get it back.  As far as they are concerned, you owe back child support and that money goes to the other parent.

If you owe back child support is there anything you can do to protect your tax refund?  It’s simple.  Do not withhold more taxes than you owe.  If you are not getting a refund, there is no money to be seized.  Although it is too late to go back and withhold less taxes for past years, you can make adjustments to your withholding going forward.

Obviously, I recommend that you take care of any child support arrearage as quickly as possible such that your child support is current.  However, many people are taken by surprise when a much anticipated tax refund is taken.

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