When you need a lawyer, you may not even know where to begin. There are so many lawyers out there. We see ads on billboards, in magazines, online and on TV. But how do you determine which attorney is the best fit for you?  If you find yourself facing a divorce or a lawsuit involving your children, you need a family law attorney. There are many wonderful family law attorneys in Collin County and Denton County, but it’s important that you find an attorney that is right for you. As family law attorneys, we handle cases very dear to our clients: cases involving children, families, adoptions, terminations, etc. It is absolutely critical that clients interview attorneys until they find the right fit for them. Just like one key doesn’t fit every lock, one attorney is not the right fit for every client.

Finding a great attorney

So with all of the options out there, how can you find a great attorney?  In addition to researching an attorney online, personal referrals and referrals from attorneys in other areas of law are two great options.

Personal referrals – Talk to people in your community, including friends and family. They may have been in your shoes and know an attorney that they highly recommend. Ask specific questions about any attorneys they refer to you. Get as much information about each referral as possible, narrow down the list based on what you are looking for and then meet or talk with with at least one attorney yourself to see if you agree that he or she will be the right fit.

Lawyer referrals – Another good way to find a great lawyer is to ask another lawyer. You may know a lawyer who handles corporate law but not one who handles family law. Ask that corporate lawyer. That lawyer will almost certainly know some excellent family lawyers. The attorneys at The Draper Law Firm, PC pride ourselves on referring our clients to attorneys in other areas who have integrity and who will be great advocates for their clients.  We want to send people to attorneys who we know will take good care of them, and we know most other attorneys feel the same.

What should you look for when choosing an attorney?

Attorneys are definitely not one-size-fits-all.  There are a number of factors that may go into deciding which attorney is right for you.

Attorney Philosophy – Finding an attorney with a great general philosophy for handling your types of cases is one of the most important things you can do.  Does the attorney prefer to start amicable to try and reach agreements whenever possible?  Or does the attorney start aggressive and prefer addressing things in court?  The attorney’s philosophy is so important when deciding if that attorney can help you meet your goals, and certain philosophies tend to be a lot more expensive in the long run than others.

Size of Firm – The size of the firm may be an important factor in your decision.  Larger firms tend to have more support staff, fancier offices, and partners with lots of litigating experience, but larger firms (especially those experienced partners) usually come with a higher price tag.  Smaller firms and solo attorneys may or may not have just as much experience and may or may not provide more personal service.  Ask your potential attorney about his or her experience and how other attorneys and support staff in the firm may be involved in your case.

Communication – You have to be able to trust that your family law attorney has your best interest at heart. When the need for a difficult conversation arises, your attorney should be able to deliver the news in a way that resonates with you and take time to thoroughly explain the situation. Communication is key! You want to find an attorney who will communicate with you in a way that is effective, who truly listens to you, and who keeps you updated about what is going on in your case.

A good attorney will advocate for you and focus on your best interests and your goals.  By doing your due diligence, you can find an attorney that will be the best fit for you.

The Draper Firm

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If you ever find yourself involved in a family law matter (or you can envision yourself ending up in one down the road), you may wonder what you should or should not do.  Although many of these DOs and DON’Ts may seem obvious, rest assured all of these issues have actually come up in real family law cases in Texas (many of them multiple times).  With the input of dozens of Texas family lawyers, I have compiled the following list of DOs and DON’Ts to keep in mind:

DOs

  1. DO hire an attorney.  If you do not have the funds to hire an attorney, borrow them.  Take out a loan, borrow from your parents, etc.  Pro se divorce forms and google research are no match for a licensed attorney on the other side.
  2. DO follow your attorney’s advice.  There is a reason you are paying your attorney.
  3. DO tell your attorney any bad facts that exist for you in your case.  Attorneys do much better with that information in advance and do not like to be surprised by it in court.
  4. DO assume anything you put in writing will show up in a courtroom and be seen by a judge.
  5. DO keep a journal with dates and important information that you write down shortly after it has happened.
  6. DO use social media with extreme caution.  See No. 4 above.   Perhaps consider getting off social media completely.
  7. DO communicate with the other party in writing whenever possible.  Not only can it back up your position, but the best exhibits in court are often what the other side has put in a text or e-mail.
  8. DO keep texts and e-mails.  It is a good idea to screen shot important texts and e-mail them to yourself, as deleted texts can generally not be recovered.
  9. DO consider opening up a new e-mail address exclusively for communicating with your attorney.
  10. DO assume anything you say is being recorded.
  11. DO consider saving your questions and combining them into one e-mail or phone call for your attorney on a periodic basis rather than sending countless e-mails or making constant calls.  It will cost you a lot less for your attorney to respond to one lengthy e-mail or have one longer phone call on a periodic basis than to respond to multiple e-mails or calls daily.
  12. If you choose not to follow the advice in No. 11, DO remember not to get upset about it when you get the bill.
  13. DO try and obtain current statements and screen shots for all accounts.
  14. DO remember that your lifestyle is going to change significantly if you are getting divorced.  What once supported one household will now have to support two.  Start making a budget for post-divorce so you can figure out what life will look like for you.
  15. DO start actively looking for a full-time job if you have been a stay-at-home-parent.  Generally, you cannot be a stay-at-home-parent after divorce.
  16. DO remember you are not going to get everything you want.
  17. DO make a list of priorities to figure out what is most important to you.  See No. 16 above.
  18. DO focus on putting yourself and your children in the best position to move forward, instead of focusing on punishing the other party.
  19. DO remember that the court can’t miraculously make more money appear.  You can’t get reimbursed for $250,000 if the estate is only worth $100,000.
  20. DO assume you are being followed by a private investigator and act accordingly.
  21. DO provide whatever your attorney has asked you to provide by the deadline your attorney has given you.
  22. DO know your children’s teachers and doctors and be actively involved in your children’s lives, especially if you want primary custody of them.
  23. DO whatever you can to be a good co-parent with your ex.  Be the bigger person when needed.  Your children will be better for it.
  24. DO remember that you chose to marry this person or have babies with this person, and now you will have to deal with this person for the rest of your life.
  25. DO pay your attorney according to the terms of your fee agreement.  If you don’t, do not be surprised when your attorney withdraws.
  26. DO realize that your children love their other parent, too, and encourage that relationship as much as you can.

DON’Ts

  1. DON’T lie to your attorney.
  2. DON’T lie to the court.
  3. DON’T talk bad about the other parent in front of the kids or within ear shot of the kids, and DON’T allow anyone else to do so either.
  4. DON’T agree to take a drug test without first telling your attorney you have been doing cocaine (or meth or pot or some prescription drug for which you do not have a valid prescription).
  5. DON’T hack into your ex’s e-mail account.
  6. DON’T put stupid things in writing.  See No. 4 under DO’s above.
  7. DON’T compare your situation to your friend’s or family member’s situation.  Your situation is not the same.
  8. DON’T assume that your google research is better than your attorney’s research.
  9. DON’T start out messages to the opposing party with “I probably shouldn’t say this.”  If you have to say that, then don’t say it at all.
  10. DON’T date someone else when going through a divorce.
  11. If you are going to ignore No. 10, DON’T flaunt it, DON’T introduce the new boyfriend / girlfriend to your kids, and definitely DON’T bring your new boyfriend / girlfriend to court.
  12. DON’T post something, take a picture of something, or put anything in writing that you would not want the judge to see.
  13. DON’T bring your minor child to court unless you have been specifically ordered to do so.
  14. DON’T get pregnant with someone other than your current spouse.  A woman can’t get divorced until after giving birth, even if everyone agrees the husband is not the father.
  15. DON’T get pregnant with the spouse you are currently divorcing.  You will not be able to finalize the divorce until after the baby is born, and things just got more complicated.
  16. DON’T sleep with the opposing party, especially if you just had your attorney obtain a temporary protective order or temporary restraining order against him or her.
  17. DON’T listen to your sister’s boyfriend’s cousin’s friend about what should or should not be happening in your case.
  18. DON’T spend money or incur debt for anything other than reasonable living expenses and attorney’s fees.
  19. DON’T make it about revenge.
  20. DON’T ask your attorney if you should do something and then blatantly disregard his or her advice.
  21. DON’T expect your attorney to be able to do anything for you at night, on weekends or on holidays.
  22. DON’T drink and drive, not even a little.
  23. DON’T post pictures of your new boyfriend / girlfriend on social medial during your divorce.
  24. DON’T let your new significant other dictate how you co-parent.
  25. DON’T alienate your children from the other parent.  It is in your children’s best interests to have a good relationship with both parents.
  26. DON’T be petty.  Focus on what is really important.
  27. DON’T use bugs or tracking devices on the other party or your children.
  28. DON’T do drugs.  This includes pot and prescription drugs for which you do not have a valid prescription.  A positive drug test can be a ticket straight to supervised-only access to your children.
  29. DON’T assume an attorney will work for you for free or do pro bono work for you.  If you qualify for legal aid, go through the appropriate channels to find a pro bono attorney.

Do's and Don'ts

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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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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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Often times family law cases involve one party with pending criminal charges.  I most often see this connected to a family violence allegation, but any type of pending criminal charge is usually relevant in a family law matter.  If a party has pending criminal charges that touch on the issues in the family law case, they can be very detrimental to that party’s case.

If a party has pending criminal charges, that party will almost certainly not be allowed to testify by his or her criminal attorney.  If that party does not have a criminal attorney yet, the family law attorney should know enough about criminal law to strongly advise the party against testifying in the family law matter.  Even if the party believes he or she is completely innocent and has nothing to hide, any criminal law attorney will still tell his client not to testify.  For one, the party’s testimony could be used against him or her in the criminal case.  If the party makes any type of admission related to the incident the basis of the criminal charges, it could mean jail time, a worse plea agreement, and/or a more likely conviction.  Even if the party does not make any admissions, if his or her testimony changes in any way by the time the criminal case rolls around, it will damage the party’s credibility and increase the chances of a poor outcome in the criminal case.

The party with pending criminal charges will have to invoke the fifth amendment and refuse to testify in the family law case.  While pleading the fifth amendment in a criminal case cannot be held against you, the same is not true in a family law case.  If one party pleads the fifth, the judge can hold it against that party.  As a result, whenever possible, if I am representing a client with pending criminal charges, I try to delay the family law case as long as possible in the hopes that the criminal case is resolved.  Once the criminal case is resolved, that party is free to testify in the family law matter.  That testimony can no longer be used against him or her in the criminal case.

Juvenile Defense

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If you find yourself involved in a child custody case, whether in a divorce context or some other suit affecting the parent-child relationship, there are several issues to think about when crafting the holiday portion of your final order.  The “standard” holidays contained in the Texas Family Code only cover Thanksgiving, Christmas, spring break, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and the child’s birthday.  Most people celebrate a lot more holidays than that!

When you are thinking about a settlement in a custody case, take the time to consider all holidays your family considers important.  Is Halloween a big deal at your house?  What about Easter?  Does your religion celebrate other important holidays that the standard order does not include?  Does your family have a special tradition surrounding the Fourth of July or Memorial Day?   I often have clients who will alternate all of these important days, with one side having a particular holiday in even years and the other side having that holiday in odd years.  Sometimes one parent’s family places more importance on certain holidays, while the other parent’s family places more importance on others.  In those situations, the parent whose family goes all out for Halloween may have that holiday every year while the other parent, whose family has special Memorial Day celebrations, will have that holiday every year.

If the parties agree, the court will approve any reasonable holiday schedule. The key is just to remember to include everything in the order to avoid future problems down the road.  As always, the parties can feel free to adjust their schedule as needed as long as they are in agreement.

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In Texas, if you are not married when your child is born, there is no legal father.  The biological dad is not legally the father until a court adjudicates him to be so.  (Prior to a court finding that he is the legal father, the unmarried biological father is referred to as the “alleged father.”)  The bio dad can (and should) sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity form when the baby is born.  Many hospitals now have this form on site when a baby is born.

In order  for the biological father to obtain legal status as the father, someone must file a paternity suit.  Either parent can file a paternity suit, as can the Attorney General.  (Usually the Attorney General will file suit when Medicaid is involved because they want the government to be reimbursed for medical expenses.)  This is the case even if everyone admits he is the dad and there is no dispute.  This is also the case even if dad signed a valid Acknowledgment of Paternity.

The paternity suit serves several purposes.  First, it allows the Court to formally adjudicate the biological dad as the legal father.  If everyone admits he is the father or if he signed an Acknowledgment of Paternity, then the Court will adjudicate him to be the father.  If either side contests paternity, the Court will order a paternity test.    Other issues typically involved in a paternity suit are conservatorship (rights and duties), possession and access (the schedule for when each parent has the child), and child support.

Paternity

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When you set a hearing in a family law case in Dallas County prior to the final trial, the hearing is generally held in the associate judge’s courtroom.  Normal hearings are set on the docket with several other cases at the same time.  Each court has a 9:00 docket and a 1:30 docket, and there may be ten cases set each day on each docket.

If your hearing is going to take a while, then the court will require you to have a special setting.  This means that the court will block out time just for your hearing on another day.

If I know a case will require a special setting, I try to reach an agreement with the other side to have the case specially set right off the bat.  This saves both parties the time and cost of showing up for the normal docket only to be reset.  If the other side has not yet had an attorney appear in the case, it can be difficult to reach an agreement on a special setting because that person often does not understand the situation.  Depending on the particular court’s schedule, it may be possible to get a special setting within a few days, or it may take a few weeks.

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