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Texas Family Courts and Exchange of Children during COVID-19 State of Disaster

It is understandable if you don’t know where to begin with this COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic. I like to compare life to baseball. For the most part, our lives are pretty mundane and predictable. We work, we come home, we play with our kids and then we do it all over again. Every once in a while a baseball game is very stressful- runners on base, late innings, etc. Life is like that too: deadlines at work, while at home your oldest daughter is having a tough time at school.

Coronavirus is a lot like that. This is a strange and stressful time in an otherwise predictable lives that most of us lead. If you are a parent who is subject to family court orders related to possession/visitation/access to your children, then you know exactly how important living life on a routine schedule is. It can ruin plans and at the very least provide a great deal of annoyance if your ex-spouse drops your kids off an hour late after a weekend away from home.

Now we find ourselves in uncharted territory with the coronavirus. Most of us parents are working from home. Children are home from school and/or daycare. It’s tough to figure out what day it is. The typical markers of time that we look to are nonexistent or irrelevant in the age of social distancing and stay at home orders. Most of us have questions to ask regarding a range of subjects.

One question that the attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan have been receiving with some frequency of late is what to do regarding possession schedules as set forth in both temporary and final orders. Should you still operate as if coronavirus hadn’t shut down schools and our way of life for a period of time? If you are worried about your child getting sick at your ex-spouse’s home do you have the right to refuse to exchange your child with him or her? Let’s get into today’s topic with no further delay so that we can answer these questions.

Spring Break became a Spring/Summer Break

For many our children, the second week in March is traditionally Spring Break week. Area families plan vacations, relax at home or take day trips to the beach and other fun spots around our area. Unfortunately, the coronavirus had other plans and turned that one week of fun into what has become six weeks of time spent at home.

Meanwhile, you and your ex-spouse are wondering how to handle exchanges of your children during the times when your possession schedule dictates that you should be dropping them off and picking them up. Spring Break came and went weeks ago. The school closures went for two weeks and is now headed for nearly 8 or 9, depending on what school district you are located in.

Let’s look to what the courts have had to say about possession and visitation exchanges. The first week that students were due to be back in school after Spring Break, the Texas Supreme Court issued a statement regarding coronavirus as it related to possession orders in family law orders. Essentially, what the high court in Texas has decided is that you and your ex-spouse should refer to the school calendar as normally scheduled when determining your possession schedule. The main thing to take away from this determination by the Supreme Court is that possession and access for parents and their children should not be affected as a result of the coronavirus-based school closures.

Work with your ex-spouse to create a possession arrangement that best suits your family

The next thing that I will point out to you is that you and your ex-spouse are well within your rights to work together to achieve a possession schedule that is modified to your liking. Yes, the court orders that you have in place are the authority in this situation, but if you all can come up with your own arrangements for possession and access that would suit the court just fine. Do not feel like you are bound to go off your court orders if you and your ex-spouse can negotiate an alternative arrangement that works better.

If problems arise with the negotiated upon order, you and your ex-spouse would revert back to the court ordered possession and access arrangements. There is a safety net dangling beneath you just in case one of you decides that your modified agreement isn’t working out well enough for either of you.

What about schools closing across the state? Does that factor come into play?

The Texas Supreme Court also provided guidance on whether or not the closing of schools across our state has any impact on possession schedules that have already been agreed upon or ordered by a family court. Based on the preceding sections of today’s blog post you could probably surmise that the schools being closed for the foreseeable future does not impact possession orders through the court.

What this means on a practical level is that you and your ex-spouse will need to follow whatever possession schedule is contained in your final or temporary orders. If you choose to deviate from those orders and your ex-spouse is not in agreement with the deviation then you may be held in contempt of court and suffer fines in favor of your ex-spouse. While you may feel justified to make changes on the fly to your court order, it is not worth it.

Co-parenting: It’s not just for other people

Here is what you can do to turn this situation into a glass half full prospect: use this as a chance for you and your ex-spouse to finally flex those co-parenting muscles that you heard so much about towards the end of your divorce.

Remember the co-parenting class or video that you were forced to watch by the judge? The instructor told you about how great life could be if you and your spouse were to work together on co-parenting your kids. At the time, the idea of working together with your ex-spouse on parenting may have seemed like a pipe dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective). Fights over the silverware and who would be paying the gas bill that month were clogging up the parts of your brain that were charged with decision making.

However, now that you and your ex-spouse have had some time apart from one another you are more likely able to work together on a common goal- such as raising your children to be productive, happy parts of society. Your kids are probably used to mom and dad not getting along and generally making life more difficult when it comes to having to work together. But what would they think if you showed them that it was possible for people who don’t see eye to eye on much suddenly work together to help raise a family? It would probably blow their minds, to be quite honest.

On the other hand, you will have to suppress any instinct that you may have towards taking advantage of this time in order to pull one over on your ex-spouse. By this I mean that you should not attempt to bully your way into more time with your child just because your ex-spouse is feeling vulnerable due to these circumstances. If you think about your child before you open your mouth or use your thumbs to text something nasty to your ex-spouse, you’ll probably avoid a number of issues.

Do not forego abiding by your court orders in favor of an oral or handshake agreement with your ex-spouse. Do your best to get something in writing. I don’t mean that you have to go and find a notary or anything like that, but an exchange of emails that you contains your agreement is a good place to start. Keeping in mind that your school district’s calendar is the most logical place to start when it comes to modifying your schedule, it is almost always a good idea to see if there is a better arrangement that can be agreed to.

Patience and grace are needed now more than ever

Please keep in mind that we are dealing with circumstances that parents in our country have not had to deal with in a century or more. There was a flu outbreak in this country back in the late 1910’s that killed many people and disrupted lives a great deal. However, I don’t think there were many possession and access schedules in place way back then. Therefore, parents in today’s world have little to compare themselves to when it comes to determining how well (or how poorly) they are handling this pandemic.

Fairness is something that is truly in the eye of the beholder. What strikes me as being extremely unfair may seem like nothing to you, and vice versa. In the context of a family law case you and your ex-spouse should aspire to treat each other as fairly as possible. This means that you should put yourself in their shoes to see how the way you’re acting would be judged by him or her. This may seem silly and even childish to think about, but you would be surprised how people can take advantage of one another in stressful situations. Speaking of which…

Imagine that the way you are acting towards your ex-spouse will eventually go before a judge

One thing that I started to do when I was a young attorney was to pretend that every interaction I had with an attorney, client, or other person would eventually be taken before a judge. So, if I was sending an email to an opposing attorney I would always strive to be professional and courteous- no matter how good it would feel to be adversarial.

Even if no other person will ever become aware of how you were acting towards your ex-spouse you can pretend that your mother, grandmother and pastor will find out about the things you have done and said to him or her of late. Would you be proud of the way you acted? Would the things that you said cause you to walk with your head held high? If not, then you should probably think twice before doing or saying whatever it is that you planned on.

Worried about your ex-spouse taking advantage of this situation?

Unfortunately, your ex-spouse may not be as respectful of you and your children as you aim to be. If you are finding out that he or she is going to do their best to take advantage of this situation then I have some advice how you can counteract their behavior in a respectful manner.

First, you can document everything he or she is doing. A log or calendar of missed drop off/pick ups, nasty emails, etc. will come in handy when and if you need to take this before a judge. The next thing you can do is have witnesses come with you to any personal interactions that you need to have with your ex-spouse. This will stop many acts of bad behavior in their tracks. Otherwise, you will have someone who can testify on your behalf in court if it comes to that.

Questions about possession, visitation or any other family law issues related to COVID-19? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan

During these unprecedented times, the Law Office of Bryan Fagan wants to make sure that you know we are here for you and your family law needs. Our physical office location is closed to the public but our attorneys and staff are working full time from home, remotely. If you need to speak to an attorney regarding your specific family law situation please do not hesitate to contact us. We are available via video and phone six days a week to meet with you to discuss your problems and help you develop solutions that can benefit you and your family.

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Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC | Houston, Texas Divorce Lawyers

The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC routinely handles matters that affect children and families. If you have questions regarding divorce, it's important to speak with one of our Houston, TX Divorce Lawyers right away to protect your rights.

Our divorce lawyers in Houston TX are skilled at listening to your goals during this trying process and developing a strategy to meet those goals. Contact Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC by calling (281) 810-9760 or submit your contact information in our online form. The Law Office of Bryan Fagan, PLLC handles Divorce cases in Houston, Texas, Cypress, Klein, Humble, KingwoodTomballThe Woodlands, the FM 1960 area, or surrounding areas, including Harris CountyMontgomery CountyLiberty County, Chambers CountyGalveston CountyBrazoria CountyFort Bend County and Waller County.

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