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The Harris County District Family Courts at a Glance: February 2023

Short Answer: Buckle up! This article dives into the thrilling world of Harris County Family Court, where real-life drama meets legal intricacies. Discover the impact of COVID-19, the challenges of virtual hearings, and the emotional rollercoaster that comes with child custody battles. Also, find out how family law attorneys are the hero in this epic tale. Get ready to dive deep into the heart of Harris County Family Court—it’s a wild ride you won’t want to miss!

Picture this: you find yourself standing at the edge of an immense courtroom, a vast sea of legal proceedings stretching out before you. You take a deep breath, steeling yourself for what lies ahead. This is Harris County Family Court, where tales of love, loss, and everything in between unfold every day.

In this captivating journey, we explore the twists and turns that COVID-19 brought to the courtrooms of Harris County. From virtual hearings that took the legal world by storm to the mind-boggling backlog of cases, we’ll unravel the impact of this unprecedented event on the functioning of the court.

But it’s not just about the pandemic. We’ll delve into the heart of the matter—the fierce battles waged over child custody, the complexities of property division, and the unique aspects of these cases that set them apart from your average divorce.

Ever wondered what it takes to modify a child custody order?

Brace yourself for the challenges and requirements that lie in wait for those seeking a change. And hold on tight as we uncover the lack of middle ground and the potential for intense litigation that can arise, leaving no choice but to let the courts decide.

But fear not, dear reader, for there are heroes in this story. We’ll shine a light on the indispensable role of family law attorneys, those skilled navigators who guide their clients through the treacherous waters of the legal process. They possess the knowledge, the experience, and the passion to fight for their clients’ rights and help them find their way to the shores of a favorable outcome.

So why should you keep reading? Well, this article is for you whether you’re a curious bystander, a potential litigant, or simply someone seeking a glimpse into the captivating world of family court. You’ll gain valuable insights, learn the secrets of successful strategies, and understand the psychological and emotional impact that these cases have on individuals and families.

Are you ready to embark on this thrilling adventure through the labyrinthine halls of Harris County Family Court? Join us as we unravel the mysteries, uncover the challenges, and celebrate the triumphs. The stage is set, the curtain rises—let the captivating tale of Harris County Family Court begin!

Welcome to the Wild World of Harris County Family Court

In the years since the COVID-19 pandemic first originated in 2020, the courts of Harris County and around the State of Texas have had to become much more open to conducting business in a previously unthinkable way. Whereas previously it was an extreme rarity to see courts allow for hearings to occur virtually or telephonically, that became the norm certainly for the first eighteen months of the pandemic. The courts were largely closed to visitors including attorneys and the litigants after the pandemic started.

Harris County Courts Resume Hearings

However, in recent months the courts of Harris County have been slowly reintegrating in-person hearings back into their schedules. In the past few months, the family courts, among the busiest of all Harris County District Courts, had to face a mounting backlog of cases that were not heard during the first year of the pandemic.

In-person, matters were largely suspended before the family courts until the beginning of 2021. In-person, hearings were scheduled to occur via telephone. The courts also allowed for virtual hearings where parties and their attorneys could submit briefs and other motions before a video hearing and could testify with Microsoft Teams. This is not the ideal setup by any stretch of the imagination, but it would have to do considering the circumstances.

Flexibility and Opinions: Harris County Courts

As most of us have seen in areas across our lives, the district courts of Harris County have done their best to be flexible in these difficult times but like an ocean liner trying to change course, it can take time to move a behemoth the size of Harris County. As such, if you asked a dozen family law attorneys in Harris County their opinions about the shift to virtual hearings and now back to in-person hearings you are likely to receive a dozen different sets of opinions.

For some people, the experience has probably been rather seamless. Judges can hear cases and apply the law just as well from their chambers as he or they would have been able to do in the courtroom. Still, other attorneys probably have experienced situations where poor internet quality, tough cases, and unhappy clients have led to a sense of disappointment with how these hearings and trials proceed in a post-COVID era.

Why do family law cases proceed to court?

There are several reasons why Texas family law cases tend to end up going to court more often than other types of civil cases. Keep in mind that the idea that you are destined for the courtroom as soon as you file a child custody or divorce case is simply not true. Most family cases do not go all the way to a trial. Most family cases settle at some point in the negotiation process- whether that be in a mediation or informal settlement agreement. In this blog post, we need to discuss and figure out why your case could be the exception. What could cause your family case to wind up in one of the family courts of Harris County?

For starters, I would like to provide you with an overview of the family courts in Harris County. Everyone who has spent even a fraction of a second in Harris County can tell you that we live in a big county both from a size and population perspective. The county itself is larger than at least one state. As a population, we boast more people in Harris County than all but two other counties in the United States. On top of that, Harris County grew by approximately 20% from the year 2010 to 2023 in terms of population. This means that nearly five million people are living in Harris County. If even a fraction of those people have a divorce or child custody matter to tend to then that means that the family court judges will have their work cut out for them.

Divorce Cases: Court Battles Over Custody

Looking at divorce cases, many areas of a case could potentially land a family in court for a trial or hearing. First, contentious issues involving child custody may need to be sorted out. Determining issues like primary conservatorship, child support, and visitation can cause even the most even-keeled parent to rear back on their hind legs and fight for what he or she believes is fair or appropriate. As a result, there may not be much middle ground when it comes to the issues of divorce. When there is a lack of middle ground or parents are unwilling or unable to find that middle ground the only other option is a court date.

In addition to child custody issues in divorce cases, community property division is another potential source of conflict. At a certain point, I was once told, a divorce ceases to be about marriage and starts to be about a business transaction. This means that the relationship and the history of two married people tend to get less important, and the focus of divorce tends to be on dividing things up more emotionlessly. That includes property. Community property is an interesting dynamic within divorce cases that most states do not have.

Whereas in other states the spouse who earns more tends to get more of the marital property that is not the case in Texas. As a result, that means that there tends to be more acrimony and less agreement across the board. More reason to go to court for hearings and trials. This elongates cases and puts courts in a position where a divorce may remain active longer than at other times.

Child Custody Cases in Harris County

The other major family law case that fills the family courts of Harris County are child custody cases. Child custody cases can come in all shapes and sizes. While divorce cases follow a similar path from beginning to end a child custody case may look different from another child custody simply by what the parties are trying to achieve and whether the case is an original child custody case or a “post-judgment” case. In an original child custody case two unmarried parents are attempting to establish court orders related to child custody, possession, visitation, or another subject within the world of Texas child custody. These parents may never have been married in the first place or may have been divorced previously.

In any event, the disputes that we see in child custody cases are often solved with the assistance of mediation just as we see in divorce cases. The trouble in a child custody case is that the issues that happen are often more at odds than in a divorce. Whereas in a divorce the parties may be more willing to find some middle ground to move on with their lives and complete the divorce, the parties to a child custody case may already have gotten the divorce they seek or may not have been married at all. As such, these folks may see less of a reason to try to find some reasonable middle ground from which to negotiate. This can create a longer and more litigation-based family law case than we see happen in divorce cases.

Post-Judgment Child Custody Modifications

Child custody cases can also be post-judgment issues related to modifying an original court order. If you or your child’s co-parent would like to return to the original court order and make some changes, then you are asking for a child custody order modification. You may attempt to modify a child custody order or even a final divorce decree. A modification requires material and substantial change in circumstances since the rendition of the prior order on the part of you, your co-parent, or a child. This is a somewhat higher hurdle to clear for most parties.

The other issue that you need to be aware of is that modification cases can tend to find families in situations where there is not as much of a middle ground when it comes to the relevant issues. There is almost always a middle ground in a divorce because you have no baseline from which to negotiate. The only baseline that you all can consider is a dysfunctional marriage. Everything is better than that, to a greater or lesser extent. As a result, you and your spouse were more willing to set aside your differences to move the ball to a more advantageous field for everyone involved.

Instead, what you may encounter in a child custody modification case is that one parent is satisfied with the orders and the other parent is dissatisfied. When one parent wants no changes, and the other parent wants significant changes the chances of becoming involved in a long, drawn-out family case increase dramatically. For example, if you want to become the primary conservator of your children but your ex-spouse wants to maintain that designation then you may have a potentially long child custody case on your hands.

Child Custody Trials: Geographic Restrictions

You may all need to go to court for a trial to ultimately decide these issues. Similar circumstances may develop, for instance, if you have a geographic restriction in place that requires your children to live in a certain area. Your wanting to lift that geographic restriction so that you can move across the country may be an appealing idea to you but it is probably less compelling to your co-parent. Since there is no middle ground on this subject, negotiating a settlement may be more of a pipe dream than you could realize.

These are some of the more compelling reasons why family law cases tend to go to court. Again, you may have specific circumstances that could either increase or decrease the likelihood of your case going to a trial. If this is something that you are concerned with or has questions about then, please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan today. We offer free-of-charge consultations with our licensed family law attorneys where we can talk to you about your case and give you some options to ponder what is best for you and your family.

Navigating Family Law: Feeling Trapped

It may be that you are truly between a rock and a hard place. Not feeling like you have any options to pursue is a real feeling that you may be experiencing right now. Not coincidentally, this is also a feeling that many people who become involved in family law cases tend to feel. While it may not feel like you will ever be able to escape your family law case that is not true. There will be an end to the case at some point.

However, another subject altogether is whether you have the wherewithal to accomplish your goals (or whether you even have goals in the first place). Having an experienced family law attorney by your side can increase the likelihood of your developing goals and a strategy for achieving those goals. At the same time, I believe that your having an attorney to represent you will decrease the likelihood that your family case will wind up going before a judge to allow him or her to make decisions on behalf of your children.

With all of that said, let’s complete today’s blog post by looking into the current state of the Harris County family courts. What is it looking like in terms of active cases across the family courts? How quickly are cases going from pending/active to completed? These are the hard numbers that you can begin to consider when you think about bringing a family law case of your own. If a case has been filed against you, you have less time to consider your options and instead need to focus on maximizing the opportunity to better your life and that of your children.

The current state of the Harris County family courts

Twelve family courts in Harris County hear family law cases which range from divorces to child custody to post-judgment issues to adoptions. Harris County has an established child support court known as an “IV-D” court by classification. This court specifically hears cases on behalf of parents and the Office of the Attorney General concerning establishing child support. Child support cases in this court can also relate to custody, visitation,and conservatorship. However, the primary purpose of the IV-D court is to set up parents with child support.

280th District Court: Protective Orders

Additionally, the 280th District Court is the court that handles matters related to protective order applications. Protective Orders can be applied independently or as a part of a divorce or child custody case. This court only handles the application for and issuance of protective orders and their statistics of active and resolved cases are not readily available through the Harris County courts website. However, if you are in a position where family violence is an issue then you can look up information about the 280th Judicial District Court to learn their policy and procedures. Please note that this court is hearing cases in person.

Otherwise, ten family courts in Harris County actively hear arguments and motions related to child custody and divorce cases, primarily. When it comes to these sorts of cases we need to keep an eye on which courts have the most active non-post-judgment cases. A post-judgment case is usually a modification case the type we discussed in this blog post and an enforcement case. An enforcement case is a family law case that seeks to enforce the terms of a prior court order.

High Volume in 257th Court

Currently, the 257th District Court has by far the highest number of active cases pending at 2,946. That includes 772 active and pending post-judgment cases. The courts do not disclose why their total number of cases is higher than any other court, but we can assume that this court has seen cases transferring into it that may require more time to complete. On the other end of the spectrum, the 309th Judicial District Court has “only” 1,642 active cases, of which 374 are post-judgment cases. This makes a total of 22,587 active and pending family cases across Harris County.

Of those 22,587 cases, most of them are aged less than twelve months in terms of the date on which the cases were filed. More than 17,000 of those 22,587 were filed within one year of February 2023. This means almost every single non-post-judgment case in the Harris County family courts is less than a year old! The courts are clearing out more cases than they are taking in currently. That is a good considering the backlog that existed in prior years coming out of the worst pandemic.

Impact of COVID-19 on the Operations of Harris County District Family Courts

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about unprecedented challenges for the courts in Harris County, including the family courts. Prior to 2020, it was a rare occurrence to witness virtual or telephonic hearings in these courts. However, the pandemic forced them to adapt to new ways of conducting business. For the first eighteen months of the pandemic, in-person hearings were largely suspended, and the courts were closed to visitors, including attorneys and litigants.

Virtual Hearings and Their Effectiveness in Family Court Cases

In response to the pandemic, the family courts of Harris County embraced virtual hearings as a means to ensure that cases could still proceed. While not ideal, these virtual hearings allowed parties and their attorneys to submit briefs and motions electronically and testify via video conferencing platforms like Microsoft Teams. This shift enabled judges to hear cases and apply the law, even from their chambers. However, the effectiveness of virtual hearings varied from case to case.

Challenges Faced by Attorneys and Litigants During Virtual Hearings

Despite the benefits of virtual hearings, there were challenges that attorneys and litigants had to navigate. Poor internet quality, technical difficulties, and connectivity issues sometimes hampered the smooth progression of hearings. Additionally, the absence of face-to-face interactions and the physical courtroom environment could impact the dynamics of the proceedings. Some attorneys and clients found it challenging to effectively communicate and present their cases in a virtual setting.

Challenges

Description

Technical Difficulties

Internet connectivity issues, audio or video malfunctions, and software glitches can disrupt the flow of virtual hearings.

Lack of Non-Verbal Cues

In virtual hearings, it becomes challenging to interpret body language, facial expressions, and other non-verbal cues, which are crucial in understanding the emotions and intentions of the participants.

Distractions and Interruptions

Attorneys and litigants participating from home or other locations may face distractions from family members, pets, or external noise, leading to difficulties in maintaining focus and concentration.

Limited Confidentiality

Ensuring privacy and confidentiality during virtual hearings can be more challenging, especially when participants are not in a controlled courtroom environment.

Technological Literacy

Some attorneys and litigants may lack familiarity with the technology used for virtual hearings, causing difficulties in navigating the platforms and utilizing the necessary features effectively.

Emotional Disconnect

Virtual hearings can create a sense of detachment compared to in-person interactions, potentially impacting the emotional connection between participants, including attorneys, litigants, and witnesses.

Access to Documents and Evidence

Sharing and presenting documents or evidence electronically can be more cumbersome during virtual hearings, leading to delays, technical hurdles, and potential disadvantages for parties involved.

Backlog of Cases in the Family Courts of Harris County due to the Pandemic

During the initial phase of the pandemic, in-person hearings were suspended, resulting in a backlog of cases in the family courts of Harris County. The restrictions imposed to curb the spread of the virus prevented many cases from being heard. As a result, the courts faced the daunting task of addressing the accumulated caseload that had built up during the first year of the pandemic.

Transition from Virtual Hearings Back to In-Person Hearings

In recent months, as the situation improved, the family courts of Harris County started gradually reintegrating in-person hearings into their schedules. The shift from virtual to in-person hearings aimed to address the mounting backlog of cases and restore a sense of normalcy to the court proceedings. However, this transition required careful planning and implementation to ensure all participants’ safety while maintaining the judicial process’s efficiency.

Opinions and Experiences of Family Law Attorneys Regarding Virtual and In-Person Hearings

The shift between virtual and in-person hearings has evoked a range of opinions among family law attorneys in Harris County. Some have found the virtual hearing experience to be relatively seamless, acknowledging that judges can effectively hear cases and apply the law regardless of the setting. On the other hand, there have been instances where poor internet quality, challenging cases, and dissatisfied clients have resulted in a sense of disappointment with the virtual and post-COVID hearing procedures.

Factors Leading to Family Law Cases Going to Court

While not all family law cases proceed to court, there are several reasons why some end up in the family courts of Harris County. It is important to note that most family cases do not reach the trial stage but instead settle through negotiation, mediation, or informal agreements. However, certain circumstances may push a case toward litigation. Understanding these factors can shed light on why some cases require court intervention.

Importance of Mediation and Settlement Agreements in Family Law Cases

Mediation and settlement agreements play a crucial role in family law cases, providing an opportunity for parties to resolve their disputes outside of the courtroom. Many issues, such as child custody, visitation, and property division, can be effectively addressed through mediation, leading to mutually agreed-upon solutions. Mediation not only saves time and costs associated with trialbut also allows parties to have more control over the outcome of their case.

Contentious Issues in Divorce Cases, such as Child Custody and Visitation

Divorce cases often involve contentious issues that require resolution in the family courts of Harris County. Child custody and visitation are among the most common and emotionally charged issues. Determining the child’s best interests and establishing a parenting plan that promotes the child’s well-being can be highly contentious. To make custody and visitation determinations, the courts consider various factors, including the child’s age, health, and relationship with each parent.

Community Property Division in Divorce Cases and Its Potential for Conflict

Another significant aspect of divorce cases in Harris County is the division of community property. Texas follows community property laws, which means that marital assets and debts are generally divided equally between spouses upon divorce. However, determining what constitutes community property and how to fairly divide it can lead to conflicts and disputes. Valuing assets, such as businesses or complex investments, can add further complexity to the property division process.

Unique Aspects of Child Custody Cases Compared to Divorce Cases

While child custody is an integral part of divorce cases, it is important to recognize its unique aspects. Child custody cases primarily focus on determining the custody arrangement that serves the child’s best interests. Unlike divorce cases, where the main concern is dissolving the marital relationship, child custody cases prioritize the child’s welfare, stability, and continuity of relationships with both parents.

Original Child Custody Cases versus Post-Judgment Modification Cases

Child custody cases in Harris County can be categorized into two broad types: original custody cases and post-judgment modification cases. Original custody cases involve establishing initial custody arrangements, often as part of a divorce or separation. On the other hand, post-judgment modification cases involve modifying existing custody orders due to significant changes in circumstances or the child’s best interests.

Requirements and Challenges of Modifying Child Custody Orders

Modifying child custody orders in Harris County requires meeting certain legal requirements. The party seeking modification must demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances that affects the child’s welfare. This change could include relocation, parental alienation, substance abuse, or other factors impacting the child’s safety or well-being. Modifying custody orders can be challenging as it involves presenting compelling evidence and persuading the court to make a change in the existing custody arrangement.

Lack of Middle Ground and Potential for Litigation in Child Custody Modification Cases

Child custody modification cases in Harris County often present challenges due to the lack of middle ground between parties. The emotional nature of child custody disputes can make it difficult for parents to find common ground and reach an amicable agreement. As a result, these cases frequently end up in litigation, where the court must make decisions based on the evidence presented and the child’s best interests.

Family law attorneys in Harris County play a vital role in guiding their clients through the complexities of the legal process. They provide legal advice, advocate for their clients’ interests, and help them navigate the procedural requirements and deadlines. Attorneys assist in gathering evidence, preparing legal documents, and representing their clients during hearings or negotiations. Their experience and knowledge of family law contribute to achieving the best possible outcomes for their clients.

Strategies for Achieving Goals in Family Law Cases

When involved in family law cases in Harris County, it is essential to develop effective strategies to achieve desired goals. Each case is unique, requiring a tailored approach. Some strategies may involve alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation or collaborative law, to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. In other cases, a more assertive approach may be necessary, including gathering evidence, presenting strong legal arguments, and litigating incourt to protect the client’s interests.

Psychological and Emotional Impact of Family Law Cases on Individuals and Families

Family law cases in Harris County can have a profound psychological and emotional impact on individuals and families. Divorce, child custody disputes, and other family law matters often involve high levels of stress, anxiety, and emotional turmoil. The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of these cases and the significant life changes they bring can take a toll on the mental well-being of those involved. Individuals and families must seek emotional support and counseling to navigate these challenging times.

Given the complexities and potential pitfalls of family law cases, seeking legal representation and consulting with an attorney is of utmost importance. Family law attorneys in Harris County possess the knowledge, experience, and understanding of the local court system necessary to protect their clients’ rights and advocate for their best interests. Consulting with an attorney allows individuals to understand their legal rights, explore available options, and make informed decisions regarding their family law matters.

Conclusion

Short Answer: Buckle up for a wild ride through the dramatic twists and turns of Harris County Family Court! From the impact of COVID-19 to the complexities of child custody battles, we’ve covered it all. So, what are you waiting for? Step into the world of legal drama, where emotions run high and justice hangs in the balance.

As our journey through the fascinating realm of Harris County Family Court comes to an end, we can’t help but reflect on the incredible stories we’ve encountered along the way. We’ve witnessed the resilience of parents fighting for their children’s well-being, the heartache of couples parting ways, and the tireless efforts of attorneys navigating the turbulent waters of the legal system.

Remember our friend Emma? She stood before the virtual court, anxiety gripping her every move as she fought for the custody of her precious daughter. With her attorney’s guidance and unwavering support, Emma’s story took a surprising turn. And just like Emma, countless others have found their path amidst the chaos, emerging stronger and more determined.

But it’s not just the courtroom battles that leave a lasting impression. The emotions swell within these walls, the tears shed, the moments of triumph—each a testament to the human spirit. We’ve laughed, cried, and marveled at the resilience of individuals and families facing life-altering decisions.

Lessons from Harris County Family Court

As we bid adieu to the world of Harris County Family Court, let’s not forget the valuable lessons we’ve learned. We’ve witnessed the importance of seeking legal representation, the power of mediation and settlement agreements, and the significance of finding common ground amid contentious issues.

So, dear reader, remember the stories you’ve encountered here as you step back into the rhythm of your own life. Cherish the time spent with loved ones; they are the heart and soul of any family court case. And if ever you find yourself at the crossroads of legal turmoil, remember the lessons learned and the guiding hand of a skilled family law attorney.

At its core, the tale of Harris County Family Court is about people, despite its drama and complexity. It’s about the quest for justice, the pursuit of happiness, and the unwavering love for those who matter most. So, take these stories with you, carry them in your heart, and let them inspire you to navigate life’s challenges with courage and compassion.

Thank you for joining us on this captivating journey. Until we meet again. May joy, understanding, and the triumph of love fill your own story. Farewell, and remember—when the curtain rises on life’s stage, you can shape your destiny.

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