Today I was just about finished writing a very exciting blog post about student loan debt in divorce when my phone rang.  I stopped writing to speak with opposing counsel in a custody modification case.  She called to give me the sad news that her client was killed in a car accident yesterday.   It got me thinking about how much we all take for granted that we will make it home safely every time we set out on the road.  We also take for granted that the other people in our lives will all make it home safely, too.

In dealing with child custody cases on a daily basis, I see many parents who love their children more than life itself but who truly despise the other parent of those children.  (To be clear, that was not the case in the situation today, but it just got me thinking in general.) Some disputes are huge with very legitimate concerns, others are small with much more minor concerns.  Today a new concept entered my mind that really had never occurred to me before when thinking about child custody litigation.  At the end of the day, how would your child feel if the other parent were suddenly gone forever?   In the end, we all love our children and want what is best for them.  In the vast majority of cases, it is best for the child to have a relationship with both parents.  Treating your child’s other parent with kindness can really go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.  I think if most separated parents would treat their ex with kindness, it would make a huge impact on their children.

For those of us who are married (or with the other parent of our children), we can use this reminder, too.  Have you ever said something unkind about your spouse in front of your children?  Have you gone to bed annoyed at your spouse for not doing the dishes?  I am choosing to use this reminder to show kindness to the father of my children, especially in front of my children.  I pray that I never have to be their only parent, but if the unthinkable ever happens, I would hope that being kind to their father now would result in a better long-term outcome for them.

While we’re at it, we can all probably use a reminder to show kindness to our children and our parents.  I certainly don’t want the last thing my daughter remembers about me to be yelling at her for making pancakes at 5:45 am this morning (true story).  Hug your children a little tighter and show love and kindness to everyone (even when they may not seem to deserve it), since we never really know what tomorrow may hold.

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Many people ask how to terminate the rights of a parent or how to proceed with a step-parent adoption. Before a step-parent can adopt a child, the biological parent’s rights must be terminated. It is important to remember that a biological parent should have the opportunity to build a relationship with their child and a court may give a parent that opportunity even after a petition for termination is filed. There are many steps involved with terminating a parent’s legal right to their child, including requirements that the parent be personally served and have the opportunity to respond.

The Texas Family Code sets out specific grounds for terminating a parent-child relationship. A parent’s rights can be terminated for a number of reasons, including leaving the child in the care of another for at least six months without adequate support. Rights may also be terminated if a parent knowingly allowed the child to be somewhere which endangered the physical or emotional well-being of the child. The most common avenue for termination we see in step-parent adoptions is for the biological parent to sign an affidavit of relinquishment of parental rights.  This is not a complete list of the grounds for termination.

In order to proceed with the adoption, the step-parent needs to complete a background check.  This involves going to the closest facility that does fingerprint background checks for DPS.  The results usually come back within a week or two.  The family will also need to participate in an adoption evaluation prior to finalizing the step-parent adoption.  Contact The Draper Law Firm, PC if you would like more information on step-parent adoption or terminating a parent’s rights.

(Blog post by Soheyla Dixon and Holly Draper)

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It is important to meet with an attorney to determine whether temporary orders are necessary in your family law case. Depending on your county, you may have Standing Orders that govern the conduct of the parties while the case is pending. Standing Orders are binding on the parties immediately and continue until the case is finalized unless specifically modified by the court.

Temporary orders can be very helpful in setting the tone for the case and making sure certain issues are presented and ruled on early on. Temporary Orders are not effective immediately and must be requested by a party. Hearing dates will be set according to the court’s docket and how full the calendar is.

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

Typical temporary orders related to children in either a divorce or child custody case include: (1) designation of conservators as either temporary joint managing conservators or temporary sole managing conservator / possessory conservator; (2) what the possession schedule will 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 if the county’s standing orders do not already do so.  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 Denton County, temporary orders hearings are typically limited to thirty minutes a side. In other counties, such as Dallas County, you are often given significantly more time for a temporary orders hearing.  (Post by Soheyla Dixon)

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After a final order is entered in a divorce or child custody case, there may be reasons down the road that one party or the other wishes to modify the order.  The Texas Family Code provides four grounds for modifying a child custody order:

  1. The parties have agreed to the terms of the modification and the court finds it is in the best interests of the child;
  2. A child 12 years old or older expresses to the court in chambers who the child would prefer to be the primary parent and the court finds it is in the best interests of the child;
  3. The primary parent has voluntarily relinquished primary care and possession of the child to another person for at least six months and the court finds it is in the best interests of the child; or
  4. The circumstances of the child, a parent, or another party affected by the order have materially and substantially changed since the earlier of the order was rendered or the settlement agreement on which the order was based was signed, and the court finds it is in the child’s best interests.

As you can see, all of the grounds require a finding by the court that the modification is in the best interests of the child.   There are a variety of factors courts consider in determining best interests.  In my experience, when the modification is based on the agreement of the parties, the court typically approves the agreement based on the parties’ representations that it is in the child’s best interest.  The court has to dig deeper into this inquiry when the parents are do not agree about a modification.

The standard for modifying a custody order is higher if a conservator wishes to flip who has primary custody (change the conservator who has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence) within one year of the prior order.  In that case, the party requesting the change must file an affidavit showing that the child’s present environment may endanger the child’s physical health or emotional development.  If the court does not believe the affidavit meets the burden, the court can dismiss the modification without ever holding a hearing.  This rule exists to try and keep parties from constantly going back to court.

In order to determine whether or not your specific circumstances would warrant a change to your child custody order, speak with an experienced family law attorney.

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Unfortunately, the state of Texas is not very kind to stay-at-home parents in divorce.  Texas is a community property state, so anything made by the working spouse during the marriage is subject to being divided (usually 50/50).  This is great if the couple has been good about saving during the marriage.  If not, the stay-at-home-parent is really going to be in a bind.

Texas does not have alimony absent an agreement for contractual alimony between the parties.  Spousal maintenance exists, but it is very hard to get.  In order to receive spousal maintenance, a stay-at-home parent would have to prove that s/he lacks sufficient property to meet his/her minimum reasonable needs and s/he meets one of four statutory bases for spousal maintenance: (1) the spouses have been married for at least ten years and s/he is incapable of earning a sufficient income to meet his/her minimum reasonable needs; (2) his/her spouse was convicted of or received deferred adjudication for a criminal offense that constituted family violence against him/her or his/her child; (3) s/he is disabled and lacks the ability to earn sufficient income; or (4) s/he must care for a disabled child, which prevents him/her from earning a sufficient income.

As you can see, the criteria above are very specific and most stay-at-home parents do not meet any of them.  Did you give up your career so your husband could take a new job?  Not a reason for spousal maintenance.  Did you give up your career because your wife made enough money to support the family and you decided together that you would stay home?  Also not a reason.  Did you giving up your career years ago to raise the children mean you can never get back into that position again?  Not a reason.

A stay-at-home parent can expect to receive child support, assuming s/he is going to be the primary parent after the divorce.  However, child support is rarely enough to support the family.  The stay-at-home parent will almost certainly need to start working in order to have sufficient income to support him/herself and his/her children.

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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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I recently became board certified in family law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.  Many attorney advertisements reference the fact that an attorney is or is not board certified.  I have to admit that until I started looking into board certification for myself, I did not even realize what it took to be a board certified attorney.  How hard could it be?  It seems like board certified attorneys are everywhere, so it cannot possibly be that hard, can it?

First, board certified attorneys are not as common as you may think.  According to the Texas Board of Legal Specialization website, there are over 100,000 licensed attorneys in Texas but only 7,450 are board certified.  There are twenty-two different specialty areas, so the number of board certified attorneys is any one area is significantly lower.

Next, when I started looking into the board certification process, I realized just how difficult it is to become board certified in family law.  No attorney can apply for board certification until he or she has been practicing for at least five years with at least three years in the specialty area.  However, given all of the requirements needed to become board certified, it takes most attorneys longer to qualify.

In order to become board certified in family law, the attorney must complete the following requirements just to be allowed to take the board certification exam:

  1.  The applicant must submit five references who are substantially involved in the practice of family law, with four being other attorneys and one being a judge before whom the applicant has appeared.
  2. The applicant must have 60 hours of Continuing Legal Education hours specific to family law in the past three years.
  3. The applicant must have devoted a minimum of 35% of her time to the practice of family law during the preceding three years (however, I think it would be difficult to achieve all of the requirements while only spending 35% of time on family law matters).
  4. Within the three years immediately preceding the application, the attorney must have completed the following:
  • Participated as lead counsel in at least 9 contested trials or binding arbitrations regarding family law matters, with at least four involving property issues and at least four involving appointment or modification of conservatorship;
  • Participated as lead counsel for a party or children in at least 30 contested family law matters that were finalized without a trial;
  • Satisfied at least two of three of the following:  (1) Participated as lead counsel for a party or children in at least two jury trials, with at least one involving family law; (2) handled an appeal and filed a brief as lead counsel in a family law matter; or (3) represented a party or children or served as a mediator in at least 25 family law mediations.
The application is extremely detailed, seeking information on the other attorneys involved in every case, the dates of mediation, the value of property involved in each case, the final disposition of the case, etc.  If the application is approved, the attorney is allowed to sit for the board certification exam.
I received notice that I could sit for the October 2016 board certification exam in the summer 2016.  At that time, I began asking other attorneys about the difficulty level of the test and how much studying would be necessary.  Surely someone who has practiced almost exclusively family law for the past several years would know most of the material on the test, right?  Wrong.  The test is extremely difficult.  Most attorneys I talked to recommended attending the annual Advanced Family Law seminar and said they spent hours each week for months preparing for the exam.  The attorneys I talked to who did not take studying seriously the first time around did not pass the test.  As a result, I attended the Advanced Family Law seminar, read all of the papers from the speakers (over 2500 pages, according to my iPad), and spent several months studying for the test.  The studying paid off, as I passed the test on the first try.  And, I can definitely say that all of the studying and preparation for the exam made me a far more knowledgeable attorney than I was before.
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This morning, I sat in a courtroom waiting to do a prove up hearing with a client.  There were six cases in line before us, and all of those cases were pro se divorce prove ups.  If a person is pro se, it means he or she is representing himself or herself.  When there is a pro se divorce prove up, we know that both parties were pro se.  Of the six cases heard before us, the judge rejected five of the orders, and those people did not get divorced today.  This particular judge took the time to tab all of the pages with problems and give a good amount of information to the parties.  However, in my experience, most judges will not do that.  Many judges will simply say they cannot give legal advice but they are not going to approve the order as written.  All of the problems I saw today would have been avoided if at least one party had an attorney.

There are an abundance of do-it-yourself divorce forms out there floating around.  Although most of them are probably technically accurate, they are very vanilla and cookie cutter.  The only time I would ever recommend someone attempt to do their own divorce is if there are no children and no property or debt.

In cases involving children, the pro se forms include cookie cutter standard language regarding custody and child support.  Although a couple may be fine with standard possession and guideline child support, there are many other options out there that pro se parties would never know exist.  Is a 50/50 schedule preferable in a particular situation?  Is there a reason why the parties should have something other than guideline child support?  An attorney would be able to help answer those questions and draft a custom order that best fits the parties’ situation.  The good news is that at least mistakes related to the children can be fixed because custody and child support can be modified down the road.

With regards to property and debt, if the parties do something wrong in the divorce decree or forget to include an important provision, after thirty days it cannot be changed absent very limited circumstances.  For example, Husband and Wife divorce pro se.  In the decree, they say Wife will keep the house.  They do not know that they should include a provision that the Wife must refinance the mortgage into her own name within a certain amount of time or the house must be sold.  So, there is no such provision included.  Several years down the road, Husband decides he wants to buy a house of his own.  Guess what?  He is still listed on the mortgage of the house owned by Ex-Wife, and he cannot qualify for a mortgage for another house.  Unfortunately for Husband, there is absolutely nothing he can do to force Wife to refinance or sell the house.  He is stuck. Similarly, if Wife does not pay the mortgage or gets behind, Husband’s credit will be negatively affected.  The mortgage company could even come after Husband to pursue the debt.  He never would have been in that situation if he would have hired an attorney in the original divorce.

Divorces involve extremely complicated issues related to both children and property.  It is simply not possible for pro se parties without knowledge of family law to properly deal with those complicated issues.  Unless you have no children and no property or debt, it is highly recommended that you hire an attorney to handle your divorce.  If you and your spouse are in agreement as to the terms, that is wonderful!  However, it is still a good idea to hire an attorney to make sure the paperwork is drafted properly and to make sure you are correctly addressing all important issues.

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