Balancing Family Needs and Legalities: The Texas Perspective on Relocation

Relocation among families has been on the increase in recent years. Certainly, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen families pick up and move with greater frequency than in prior years. Divorces are more common now than in decades prior, people are moving towards remote work which allows for greater ease in moving and the cost of living has caused many of us to reconsider where we currently reside. For all these reasons and more, families in our area and across the country are thinking long and hard about where they will live now and in the future.

What you as a parent need to keep in mind is that the State of Texas wants to encourage parents and children to have long-lasting and meaningful contact with one another. Once a divorce occurs the State encourages parents to work together on issues related to their children despite the divorce. All of this leads to situations where family courts do not outright discourage relocation but certainly do not want to put families in a position where one parent is unable to build a relationship with their child.

A court considers, first and foremost, the best interests of your child when making relocation decisions. For example, at the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, we have experienced many questions in recent years about relocation from the perspective of a job change. Can you move to Austin or San Antonio for a better-paying job if your child’s father lives in Houston? Can you modify your existing child custody orders to lift a geographic restriction that keeps you in Harris County?

When assessing whether a change in circumstances is material and substantial you would look at the situation as it was back when your original orders were issued and what they are now. A court will not modify an existing order for just any reason. Rather, it needs to be something where circumstances have developed or changed so dramatically that a modification is necessary to maintain the best interests of your child. In that case, it is questionable as to whether a new job opportunity in Austin is truly material and substantial change that would serve the best interests of your child.

Relocation cases after a divorce case are among the most fact specific in the world of Texas family law. You need to be extremely prepared to bring one of these types of cases to trial. The reason why we say that is because there is no middle ground when it comes to a relocation case. Either you can move to Austin to take the job, for example, or you cannot and must remain in Houston. It’s not like moving to Giddings will accomplish anything for you, your co-parent, or your child. Rather, you need to either make the move or stay where you are. When the situation is as cut and dry as that, having an experienced attorney argue those points and prepare your case is essential.

In today’s blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, we are going to walk you through what a relocation case looks like from the perspective of a family law attorney. You will be able to see how the issues matter in a case like this and what you can do to prepare on your own and with your attorney to either keep your child near you or possibly lift a geographic restriction in favor of being able to leave the area. We serve clients from all over southeast Texas, and we would be honored to do the same for you and your family.

Practical considerations in Texas child custody relocation cases

When our office can serve a client who is facing a relocation it is always more difficult when the family has two parents who are actively engaged in the life of the child. If you are going to be asking a judge to lift a geographic restriction it is hard enough to accomplish this as it is. However, if your ex-spouse is a good father who participates actively in the life of your child and has done nothing to “deserve” having his child removed from the Houston area then it becomes even more of a challenge. I think even the most driven parent would agree with this assessment. Children form bonds with parents and to sever that bond or at least cause it to fray can be a sad situation no matter the reason for the move.

Sometimes the move is necessitated by circumstances beyond anyone’s control. Consider what you would do if your child were to need medical treatment that required a move to a different city. I know this is hard to believe considering you most likely live in the Houston area but suppose that you were needing to ask a Texas court for permission to move to Houston to avail yourself and your family of medical care in our city. In that case, you would be able to show a court that the move is not being requested out of spite of a co-parent but rather out of medical need. Your child’s health depends on being able to see this doctor regularly. Therefore, making a best-interest argument on these grounds would seem to be more straightforward.

This is as opposed to an argument where you are asking to move for you to be closer to family or a job offer. Taken by themselves, either of these reasons are good reasons to move. I have moved for both reasons in my personal life. I’m sure many of you reading this blog post have, as well. However, they are not “must” move situations. The jobs argument is particularly tough in an area like southeast Texas where we seemingly always have numerous jobs available in a variety of areas. The family argument is another one that may fall on deaf ears as you would be asking a court to allow you to move to a new place while at the same time.

In either situation, if the relocation attempt were granted then you have a situation where your co-parent will be left in the cold with a reduced amount of time with your child. Any conservatorship rights and duties that your co-parent has concerning your child would be rendered ineffective given that your co-parent would not be able to see your child with any frequency due to your move. This would certainly seem to fly in the face of the state’s motivation to encourage strong bonds between children and parents after a divorce.

When you tell an attorney that you are interested in filing a modification case to move, what we would first talk to you about is whether you actually NEED to move or if you just want to move. There is a difference, of course. Needing to move to be closer to a doctor who is the only person in the world who can care properly for your child is one thing. Wanting to move because you met a man online and he lives in Austin is another thing altogether. The difference between these two situations is massive. A court will look at them as being near opposites in terms of motivation and importance. So, you can expect a good and experienced family law attorney to press you on this when you initially speak to him or her. You may quickly find that your need is closer to a want. Generally speaking in child relocation cases, a want does not meet the burden of a relocation.

Think about it in terms like this: if you have a goal in mind, be it making more money, being closer to family, or starting a relationship, is there any other option available to you other than moving that can accomplish your goal? This is something best thought about long before you file a relocation case in a family court and preferably before you even step into an attorney’s office to discuss a potential case with a lawyer. You can save yourself time and money by thinking this issue through intentionally. If you bring this issue up with your co-parent it can and will cause him or her to become defensive. From their perspective, you are trying to take their son or daughter away from them. Walk a mile in their shoes to see if it is worth bringing up in the first place. You may have options to pursue which are much less dramatic and may require less sacrifice from those around you.

Above all else, you should not move unless you know that it is approved first by the court. This means that you should review your final decree of divorce to determine if a geographic restriction exists. If there is one then you need to stop before you run into a situation where you are violating your court orders. This can result in fines and other penalties that you may not have bargained for. Even if there is no geographic restriction in place it may still be possible that you could be violating your court order by moving.

Depending on where you are moving you may be making it impossible for your ex-spouse to live up to their end of the bargain as far as the decree is concerned. By moving 100 miles away you may be making it impossible for him or her to pick your child up for weekend visitation. This would be another example of a situation where you violate the order. The last thing you want is to pick up and move without your ex-spouse’s knowledge and the court’s permission. You may find yourself with some hefty fines levied against you and an order from the court to move right back to town.

If after speaking with an experienced family law attorney, you are given positive indications that your relocation case may be successful it is time for you and your lawyer to begin organizing evidence. This means going through documents to dig up your attempts to find suitable employment in this area, job interviews attended, leads that dried up, school records for your children, medical records showing the need to relocate for care, calendars, and any other documents which you believe are relevant to the case. Provide them all to your attorney along with a timeline of events. You want to make sure that you have provided your lawyer with as much information as possible so that he or she is up to date on the events which have led to your being here today.

As we mentioned a moment ago, there are very few relocation cases that, once filed, can be settled out of court. There is not much middle ground in a situation where you want to move from Houston for a specific reason. In many other modification cases, parents can meet in the middle on an issue and be just fine However, in a relocation case there is rarely any middle ground. You can either get the move approved or not. Therefore, there just isn’t much motivation for you and your ex-spouse to try and settle this case. Rather, there is more reason for the two of you to try and see the case through to the end.

Another factor to consider is the judge to whom your case is assigned. If you work with an experienced family law attorney, he or she can tell you that based on their experiences with the judge the likelihood of success is. If your case is assigned to the same judge who instituted your geographic restriction and is famously opposed to relocations being allowed, then you can see the writing on the wall. On the other hand, say that the judge who issued your divorce orders is no longer on the bench and a new judge is on the scene who is more favorable to relocations. This can change the trajectory of your case a significant amount.

If you are asking the court to approve a relocation then you are asking your attorney to submit reasons to the court why the relocation is a good idea and to minimize the reasons why the relocation may be a negative for you, your co-parent as well as your child. Our attorneys can tell you from experience that there are some factors that a court will look at and scrutinize much more closely which can end up having a huge impact on your case overall. To conclude our blog post today we are going to walk through those factors and allow you to think about them more in detail as you prepare for a possible relocation case in the future.

One of the most compelling arguments that a parent can make in your position is that the relocation would not hinder the emotional development of your child very much because your co-parent is frankly uninterested in building a relationship with your child. This can be evidenced through testimony from family members, a history of non-compliance with visitation and possession orders, the testimony of your child especially if he or she is a teenager, and any evidence of missed visitation opportunities in recent weeks or months. Taken in isolation, missed visitation opportunities do not necessarily mean that your request for a modification will be approved. However, when taken in combination with these other factors parental disinterest can be a compelling argument to make to a court.

Next, if you are asking a court to approve a relocation attempt, it can be helpful if your co-parent agrees with the modification due to their being able to move shortly after you. For instance, if you took a job in a new city and your co-parent is prepared to testify to a court that she is planning to take a job and move as well then this may be a strong factor in your favor and a court may be more prepared to grant your modification request as a result. This is why coordination with your co-parent is so important. If you can talk to her about your relocation attempt and she can give you some assurance that she would approve of the request if she can find suitable employment in the new location then you may be looking at a completely different set of circumstances on your hands.

These are just a few of the circumstances which you may attempt to highlight in preparing for a relocation case in Texas. The attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan appreciate you spending time with us today on our blog and we hope to be able to have you join us again in the future as we share relevant and entertaining information about the world of Texas family law.

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 theLaw 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 for you to learn more about the world of Texas family law as well as about how your family’s circumstances may be impacted by the filing of a divorce or child custody lawsuit.

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