Are you at the very beginning of a family law case in Texas and don't know how you got to this point? If your co-parent has filed a child custody or child support case against you then it is normal to want to get to the bottom of what the potential consequences are for you and your family. You can wander into a family law case but it is hard to wander out of one and accomplish anything of significance. Being ambivalent towards the proceeding won't work out well for you, either. Do not assume that everything will just fall into place nicely even though you chose not to participate in the case.
If you do nothing else- participate in the case
At a minimum, you need to be ready to be physically present for any scheduled hearings or mediation sessions. Filing an Answer to whatever lawsuit you have been served with is important, too. This will allow you to be notified of any filings into the case made by your co-parent and will allow you to also file a response to any requests for information from the court. This is the bare minimum that you should be expected to do regarding this case. More than being out of the loop when it comes to the courtroom proceedings you also lose your ability to have a say in the proceedings,
When you have minor children the most important thing that you can do for them is your ability to make decisions on their behalf and contribute to their upbringing. From having worked with many parents in your position, the number one concern that these folks have as a result of their family law case is that their co-parent will deny them the ability to have a say-so in the life of their child. This could relate to your ability to make decisions regarding medical issues, educational issues at school, or even religious practices that your child may partake in.
Supporting your child is another major issue that relates to parenting. We take this for granted sometimes when we are with our kids regularly. However, spend some time apart from your children and you will find out quickly just how much you want to be a part of your child's life as far as caring for him or her. Not participating in your child custody case can mean that you are left in the dark when it comes to your child's day-to-day life is concerned.
The other concern that you should have at this time is regarding child support. This is an issue that comes up in almost every family law case. If you are the noncustodial parent, meaning that you are not the primary caretaker of your child, then you will most likely be ordered to pay child support in this case. The amount of that child support is a function of how much your net monthly income is and how many children you have before the court. However, the calculation process is rarely as simple as I just made it out to be.
Child support is something that can be set based on guidelines as outlined in the Texas Family Code but also on the specific circumstances of your family. Yes, if you want to go by the guidelines in the Code you can take 20% of your spouse's net monthly income and utilize that figure as child support. However, you need to be sure that you know how to calculate their income and that the 20% figure represents an appropriate total for you to use each month. You must have a budget at this stage of your case so you can know what you have coming in as far as income and what you have going out. This figure will allow you to be able to rest easier knowing that you are negotiating based on appropriate circumstances in your life.
Situations that you should consider when you are negotiating through child support are whether your child is relatively healthy or has a chronic medical condition. Virtually all kids have a moment in time when they suffer an acute injury. Falls, trips, and things of that nature happen to kids when they are young. I am talking about chronic medical issues that require ongoing care from a doctor. Does your child require an injection of some sort each month that is only partially covered by health insurance? Then this would be a cost that you need to think about that many other people do not need to think about. Either way, coming into negotiations on child support with specific information can be a huge help. The more prepared you are and the more information you have to back up your positions, the more likely that your spouse is likely to follow your lead and negotiate in good faith with you.
Put yourself in the shoes of your co-parent for just a moment. If you come into mediation or simply try to engage in informal settlement negotiations and do so without clear-cut information and half-truths then your spouse is unlikely to go very far with you in negotiations. If every time he or she asks you a question about the positions that you are taking, you have no good answers for him or her then your proposals are dead in the water. The way to avoid a situation like this is to collect all the relevant information that you need, have multiple copies, and make sure that you and your spouse can at least agree on the parameters of your case as far as costs and expenses are concerned. The last thing you want to do is try to negotiate with one hand tied behind your back.
Create a budget for yourself and be honest. Show your spouse what you have coming into your household and what you have coming out as far as expenses are concerned. This is the best way to be clear with your spouse about your needs as well as take into consideration the circumstances of your child as far as any amounts over and above the guidelines level of support are concerned. You do not need to look for secrets to position yourself well for child support. Ultimately it is the best interest of your child that matters most. Are you able to support him or her using your income? Hopefully, you are. Whatever your spouse can contribute as far as child support is concerned will be even better for you and your child in the long run.
Visitation and possession
When you are going through a child custody case it is undoubtedly true that you will need to consider not only your present circumstances while negotiating a parenting plan but where your life will take you soon. This is not something easy to do. Many people have no idea where their life is going to take them over the next several years. As a result, you may be at a disadvantage when it comes to creating a parenting plan related to access and possession. Fortunately, the State of Texas has a standard plan that can help you prepare for these events.
That standard plan is known as a Standard Possession Order. The SPO as it is known is the fallback that a judge will rely upon to assign visitation and possession schedules for a child and two parents. If you and your co-parent cannot come to an agreement in your case on possession and access that means a family court judge will need to do so. Most of the time, absent extreme or unique circumstances, an SPO or some variation of an SPO will be ordered. This section of our blog post today is going to discuss what the SPO is, and why it could work for our family but why it may not work out so well.
Standard Possession Orders
When parents go through a family law case their concerns are usually straightforward. One parent may not have had as much time with their child as he or she would like before the case. This could be for several reasons, but the number one reason seems to be that their co-parent just made it difficult for him or her to be able to see their child. If you are in this position, then a family law case may be exactly what you need to set yourself up with a possession schedule for you and your child that is consistent and predictable. This not only benefits you but also benefits your child.
A Standard Possession Order is sometimes called the one-size fits all parenting plan. If you and your co-parent can’t agree on how to divide up your time between your children, then the SPO can be put into place and then you have your possession schedule. First, third, and fifth weekends of every month. Dinner on each Thursday from 6-8 pm. Split holidays with your co-parent. For a parent in your position who may have struggled to get quality time with their child previously this may seem like the greatest gift, you could ever be given. Or negotiated for. Here is what you should also consider when it seems like an SPO is a possibility for you and your family.
You need to make sure that you can make the logistics work. Typically, an SPO is only implemented in situations where you and your child are within 100 miles of one another. This is the case to make sure that long-distance travel will not make the possession orders unworkable. We all know how difficult it can be to get across the city of Houston at various times of the day. Consider now that you should be clear about what the expectations are with traveling to see your child and making sure that you have a home that is suitable for these weekend visitation periods to occur. This doesn't mean that you need to find a place to live that is just as "nice" as your child's home. However, you need to think about bringing your child into your home and whether he or she would be comfortable in the home with you.
How to reach an agreement with your co-parent
There are many ways that you can reach an agreement with your co-parent when it comes to parenting matters. For one, you and your co-parent can put aside your differences and understand that nobody knows your family better than you do. Even if you disagree with one another on several issues at this moment that does not mean that you can't also see that you know your family better than a family court judge does. As a result, if you can focus on your children and do what is best for them you have an opportunity to do a great deal of good. This starts with keeping the lines of communication between you and your co-parent open throughout your case.
One of the major mistakes that some people fall into during a family law case is that they do not use their time wisely. A family law case offers ample opportunity to negotiate with your co-parent on the most important issues of your case. However, to be able to do so you must be willing to work together on these subjects as a team. Negotiations can be had over many weeks informally. I like to contact the opposing attorney early in a case to get a feel for how negotiations will proceed. If you want to be able to work together on issues in a family law case you need to be willing to work with your co-parent on them.
Setting goals for yourself is a great place to begin when you are involved in a family law case. Without goals, it is difficult to assess where you are in a case and to determine whether the case is proceeding as planned without having goals. A great resource for you to be able to lean on when it comes to setting goals for a family law case is your attorney. You can use the time with your attorney wisely by going over what you think reasonable goals are and determining how to best achieve those goals. When it comes to establishing a parenting plan for your case you may choose to talk to your attorney about the subjects that are most important to you. For example, if you want to be able to make sure that your co-parent and you have split custody then that may need to be something that you focus on early in the case.
Mediation is also a great tool to utilize during a family law case when it comes to helping you achieve various goals. Mediation is a formal negotiation session between you and your co-parent. Typically, mediation occurs at the office of the third-party mediator. The mediator will help to communicate settlement offers and counter offers and memorializes any settlements made during the mediation session. This document is known as a mediated settlement agreement. In divorce cases, mediation typically occurs twice and in child custody cases mediation will occur at least once.
Being prepared for mediation is important. We have already talked about having a clearly defined set of goals for your case and using your time wisely. The more you can focus on these fundamental principles the better off you will be in your case. Many people want to make the creation of a parenting plan something which almost takes on a life of its own. However, parenting plan negotiations can and should focus on the practical steps that are involved in the process and less on other issues that you have less control over.
Final thoughts on parenting plan negotiations
Ultimately, when you are negotiating a parenting plan you are trying to create outcomes that are in the best interests of your child. If that is your central focus for the case, then you will not lose track of negotiations or get confused as to your goals. Placing your child at the center of everything that you do is critically important. That will influence how you negotiate and what you focus on during the case.
Otherwise, if you are feeling a bit lost at the outset of your family case then I would recommend contacting an experienced family law attorney to discuss your circumstances and to talk through what your options are. An attorney can help you simplify your situation and avoid getting lost in the side issues and distractions of a family law case. When you work with an experienced family law attorney you can learn about the law and your case so that you can make better decisions for yourself and your family.
Questions about the material contained in today’s blog post? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan
If you have any questions about the material contained in today’s blog post please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free-of-charge consultations six days a week in person, over the phone, and via video. These consultations are a great way to learn more about your circumstances as well as find out more about whatever area of Texas family law interests you most.