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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Many clients have questions about mediation. They have heard the term but are not sure what it means or why it is advantageous when they have a list of demands and are pretty sure the other party will not agree to all of them.

Mediation is a very productive tool in family law cases. It is more of a collaborative approach to resolving a family law case and far less adversarial than going to trial and airing everyone’s dirty laundry on the record. Both parties are represented by counsel in mediation and are typically in separate rooms. A neutral third-party (the mediator) works with the parties and their respective attorneys in an attempt to reach a final agreement in the case. Many courts require mediation. Denton and Collin Counties both require mediation before final trial.

While each party to a divorce or child custody matter comes into the case with his or her own unique perspective and list of demands, if children are involved it’s important that they can each focus on the best interests of the child. Each party’s attorney will work to prepare them for mediation. They will give them the lay of the land and work on a proposed settlement offer prior to the day of mediation. It is important that the parties have completed and provided any necessary documents such as inventory and appraisements, proof of income and proposed possession schedules to their attorneys, if requested. This helps save valuable time in mediation.

Mediators can help parties and attorneys think outside of the box and get very creative with language to include in a final order. Further, the parties can agree to things in mediation that a judge could never order in a trial.  Examples include possession schedules for pets, creative ways to allocate community assets that are not yet liquid, and unique possession schedules for the children that are personally tailored to a particular family’s lives. Often, while each party has their list of demands, each tends to have different priorities.  By focusing on priorities, we can encourage a settlement that both are reasonably happy with.

Once an agreement is reached and the mediated settlement agreement signed, both parties know exactly what the key terms of the final order will contain. There is no guessing what a judge or jury will do. The parties don’t have to leave mediation discouraged only to find that the attorney needs to conduct more discovery, file more motions and prepare for a full day (or longer) trial in his or her case.

Best of all, after a successful mediation, parents can simply focus on moving forward with their lives and  their children without the worry of litigation looming. After mediation, attorneys will work to draft an order based on the agreements reached that will be signed by all parties and attorneys. That order will then be entered, signed by the judge and the case closed.  The order is usually significantly longer than the mediated settlement agreement, but the terms will all be the same. (Blog post by Soheyla Dixon)

The Draper Firm

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At The Draper Law Firm, we love adoptions!  One of the adoptions we often see involves a step-parent adopting the biological child of his or her spouse.  There are a couple of questions I immediately ask when someone inquires about a step-parent adoption:  (1)  What is the status of the other biological parent? and (2) If that biological parent is alive and hasn’t had rights terminated already, will that parent voluntarily relinquish parental rights?

In order to proceed with a step-parent adoption, the biological parent who is not involved must either be deceased, have had his or her rights terminated, or have his or her rights terminated prior to the step-parent adoption.  We generally do the termination and adoption in one proceeding, and they are often both handled in the same final  hearing.  The process is extremely easy if the biological parent will sign an affidavit voluntarily relinquishing parental rights.  (This post will not go into the process to terminate if that does not happen.)

In addition to terminating the biological parent’s rights, the step-parent will need to complete a criminal background check.  This is now generally done electronically, and the results come back quite quickly.  The step-parent will also need to complete an adoption home study.  The home study involves an added expense outside of attorney’s fees.  For the home study, the step-parent, spouse and child will meet with the evaluator and have a home visit.  They will also provide collateral references in support of the adoption.

Sometimes an attorney ad litem is appointed to represent the child in the case.  The court has the discretion to waive the ad litem if the judge feels the child’s best interests are adequately protected by the parties.  We have always requested that the court waive the requirement of an ad litem for the child in step-parent adoption cases, and that request has always been granted.

Once the background check and home study are complete, we prepare a final order and go finalize the adoption.   The child comes to the final hearing, and the judge will always participate in taking pictures with the family to help celebrate the occasion.

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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)

stk204273rke

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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)

Divorce

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Any debts incurred during the marriage are presumed to be debts of the community.  Any debts incurred prior to marriage are the separate debts of the party who incurred them.  However, the party trying to argue a debt should be separate would need to prove the debt existed prior to marriage to prove its separate nature.

The only way a debt incurred during the marriage can be confirmed as a separate debt would be if there was a written agreement for the creditor to look only to the separate estate of the party, not to the community estate. One spouse applying for the credit individually is not the same as the creditor agreeing only to look to her separate estate for payment.

The court will divide debts as part of a “just and right” division of the entire community estate.  However, the court does not have the ability to influence a third party creditor.  Even if the court awarded a debt to a certain party, the creditor would look to the person whose name is on the debt to pay it (regardless of who the court ordered to pay it in a divorce decree).  Normally debts are either paid off with available assets or proceeds from the sale of property or the person whose name the debt is in takes it (but is often compensated with additional property to make up for it).

The court will look at the following factors when determining how to allocate debt in a manner that is “just and right”: (1) the spouse’s ability to pay; (2) the property securing the debt (if a party takes the property security the debt, that party takes the debt); (3) the relationship to the creditor (if wife borrows from wife’s family, she’ll end up with that debt); and (4) the party responsible for creating the debt.

It is extremely common for clients to have concerns about credit card debt the other party has accumulated.  If the charges on the credit card are for ordinary living expenses, those will definitely be considered community debts and will very likely divided 50/50.  (This doesn’t mean each is paying half of the credit card bill, it just means we are factoring in a 50/50 split of the debt into the division of the estate.)  If the wife is buying gifts for her boyfriend on the card, then she is most likely going to get hit with that debt.  If the husband is just a spender, it’s most likely going to be divided 50/50.  If someone is doing really insane, crazy spending, then they may end up taking a bigger portion of the debt.

Student loans will almost always go with the person who received the education tied to the student loans.   Secured debts generally go with the property to which they are secured.  For example, if the parties have a car with a loan, the spouse who takes the car will take the loan.  If that loan is in both parties’ names (or the name of the spouse not taking the car), the spouse taking the car will generally have to refinance into his or her own name within a certain amount of time.  If he or she cannot do that, then the car usually must be traded in or sold.

Child Support

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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.

CPS

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In Texas, the grounds to have a marriage annulled are extremely narrow.  Specifically, a court can grant an annulment only if one of the following applies:

  1. One of the spouses was under the age of 18  and did not have the appropriate consent or a court order;
  2. One spouse was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the marriage, lacked the capacity to consent as a result, and the parties never lived together after the effects wore off;
  3. A party was permanently impotent at the time of marriage, the other spouse did not know, and the parties did not voluntarily live together after the other spouse learned of the impotency;
  4. The respondent used fraud, duress or force to induce the petitioner into marriage, and the petitioner has not voluntarily lived with the respondent since learning of the fraud or being released from the duress or force;
  5. One of the spouses is mentally incompetent, lacked the ability to consent to the marriage, and the parties have not lived together since the discovery of the mental disease or defect;
  6. The respondent divorced a third party within 30 days before the date of marrying petitioner, at the time of marriage the petitioner did not know of the divorce, and since discovery the divorce, the parties have not lived together; or
  7. If the parties were married less than 72 hours after issuance of the license, the marriage can be annulled only if filed within 30 days after the marriage.

If none of the above grounds apply, the parties cannot annul the marriage.  Although there are a few other situations where a marriage can be voided (incest, bigamy, a party is a minor, or one party is a current or former step-child of the other), most people looking to dissolve a marriage who cannot get it annulled will need a divorce.

Divorce

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Under the Texas Family Code, a party can modify child support in three situations:  (1) the parties have agreed to modify child support; (2) when the parties meet the three-year modification rule; and (3) when there has been a material and substantial change to justify a modification.   Parties can accomplish child support modifications either through a private attorney (generally much quicker but attorney’s fees are involved) or through the Attorney General (free but the process can take 6-9 months to even get started once a request is made.)

If the parties agree to modify child support and the court finds the modification to be in the best interests of the child, it is quick and easy to get child support modified with an attorney.

The three-year modification rule provides that the court can modify a child support order without a material and substantial change if it has been three years since the prior child support order and the new amount would differ from the prior amount by either 20% or $100 under the current child support guidelines.  Even if the 20% / $100 difference is not met, the Court could still modify child support if it feels it is in the best interest of the child.  If the prior order was based on the agreement of the parties and was not based on the child support guidelines at the time, the Court cannot use the three-year modification rule to modify child support.  In that situation, child support can only be modified by agreement or by proving a material and substantial change.

Finally, the Court can modify the amount of child support if the circumstances of either a parent or the child have materially and substantially changed since the prior order (or since the date of the mediated settlement agreement or collaborative law agreement on which the prior order was based).  The person requesting the modification has the burden of proving a material and substantial change.  If the change was anticipated at the time of the prior order, it does not justify a modification.  The court will look at a variety of factors such as changes in jobs, increases or decreases in pay, changes in financial circumstances, the birth of another child, etc. to determine if a material and substantial change has occurred.   The party requesting the change must show what the conditions were at the time of the order as compared to the conditions at the time modification is sought.

Child Support

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