If you are a father to a child and are not together with the child’s mother you may have questions about how you can positively impact your child’s life. Maybe the mother won’t let you see the child for some reason- or no reason at all. Maybe you are doing your best to provide for that child but are between jobs or are underemployed. You may not be in the situation you envisioned yourself being as far as having a child and being able to develop a relationship with him or her, but that’s ok. The main thing to keep in mind is that you have the ability to play a meaningful role in your child’s life.
The Texas Office of the Attorney General works on behalf of our state to ensure that children are cared for and their basic needs are met. Their primary method of doing so is administering child support payments- by receiving them from noncustodial parents like yourself and sending those payments to custodial parents like your child’s mother. Whether you know it or not, these child support payments have an impact on your child that can be profound.
Before we discuss this relationship and how meaningful it is, let’s take a step back and go over some terms that you may encounter in the event that you pursue a family law case in the future.
Defining what a noncustodial parent is
The parent who does not have primary custody of your child is the noncustodial parent. This means that your child lives primarily with the custodial parent and sees you based on whatever visitation rights are contained within your court orders. An important piece of information to be aware of is that just because your child does not live with you primarily does not mean that he or she cannot develop a relationship with you or that you have no ability to influence that child’s life.
Defining what a custodial parent is
The managing conservator of your child is the custodial parent. In our example, your child’s mother would have the legal right to determine the primary residence of your child. This goes back to what we mentioned a moment ago- your child lives primarily with their mother and sees you based on any visitation orders that you have. The big thing to keep in mind is that there are no formal parenting “roles” until a court order is created. Until then, neither of you are custodial or non-custodial parents.
Fathers: pay attention to this section
Even though you do not get to determine where your child lives primarily, you still have rights as far as spending time with your child and knowing where your child is at any given moment. A huge misconception that many fathers have is that courts will always name the mother of your child as the custodial parent and you will be named as the noncustodial parent. This is not the case at all, and I’d like to take some time to discuss that with you.
If you believe that most families take on the above parenting roles- with mom as the custodial parent and dad as the noncustodial parent- you would probably be right. It does seem like more moms are the primary caretakers, while dads come in on the weekends and spend time with the child while not at work. If you want this to be your family dynamic that would be fine.
However, if you want to play a larger role in your child's life, my advice to you would be to spend as much time with your child as possible. Whatever sort of flexibility you have in your schedule you need to take that time to spend it with your child. The reason why moms almost always are the primary conservator of the child is that dads forfeit the right to make an argument for being the primary parent because they voluntarily give mom more time than they keep for themselves. There is nothing in the mother-child relationship that is superior to the father-child relationship.
Paternity and child support and how they are related
If you want to be a committed and involved father there are steps that you can take to back up those noble goals with actual effort. For one, the simplest thing I can tell you is that you cannot ignore official paperwork that you get from the government. For instance, if you get a notice from a court telling you that you have a hearing date you need to go to that hearing. This is not an optional appearance. You don’t have anything more important going on that day. Even your job needs to take a backseat.
When you receive notice of a court date it is time for you to alert your boss that you need to take a personal day. Even if the notice says your hearing is set to begin at 9:00 a.m., it may start much later in all actuality. Take the entire day off so you’re not spending the day worrying about making it into work late. The judge in your case can make decisions regarding your relationship with your child with or without you present. Unless you are comfortable with the judge making those decisions without you it is key that you attend any court date you are made aware of.
In the event that you are not the legal father to your child, it is especially important that you attend a court date. You will need to be given a paternity test in order to be biologically proven to be the father to your child. It is only then that you can have any legal rights as far as being in possession of your child and making decisions on that child's behalf. So, be prepared to attend any and all court dates that relate to your paternity. The future relationship between you and your child could be at stake.
Signing an Acknowledgment of Paternity may bypass your need to attend a court date
Instead of having to go to court to have a judge adjudicate parentage for your child, you and the child’s mother could choose to sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity instead. This form is a legal document that you and the child’s mother would both fill out that certifies that you are the biological and therefore legal father of the child. The forms would be sent to the State and you would be able to take on legal parenting responsibilities as a result of that. Note that you and the child’s mother must both turn these forms in. A single Acknowledgment of Paternity has no legal bearing.
I should note that only unmarried parents of a child will need to fill out Acknowledgments of Paternity. The law in Texas presumes that if you are married to a woman who gives birth to a child that the child is your biological offspring.
Know what you are getting yourself into before you take the plunge and sign a document
Signing a legal document is not something that can easily be reversed. Therefore, you should read the entirety of anything that you are planning on signing your name to before you actually do so. At the very least, even if you make a mistake and the effects can be reversed it will invariably cost you time and money to do so. Avoid putting yourself in this sort of mess by reviewing carefully anything that is put before you- even if the person seems trustworthy or works for the government.
Consider your legal options before pursuing a case
Family law cases are usually very fact specific. This means that depending on the circumstances of your specific case, the proceedings could go very smoothly or could be rocky. For instance, if there is more than one man who could theoretically be the father to your child then this will be a complicating factor for you if you want to be legally designated as the dad. Another factor to consider is whether or not the mother to the child is willing to allow you to see your child until a court order is ready to go.
My point is that if you are in a difficult position and have been told that the mother of your child will not allow you to see him or her, it may be for the best that you hire an attorney to represent you. Yes, an attorney costs you money. What an attorney will also do, however, is save you time in having to work towards drafting documents and making arguments in court.
Another option that you could potentially pursue would be having the Office of the Attorney General open up a paternity case. Keep in mind that the Office of the Attorney General represents the state of Texas and not you or your child’s mother. However, if you lack the resources to hire a private attorney the Attorney General can file a case after you contact them.
In addition to determining parentage to your child, a paternity case can eventually sort out issues regarding custody, visitation, possession and child support. These elements will all be included in the final orders of your cases. Final orders will ensure that you have an opportunity to contribute monetarily to the raising of your child and will also help to make sure that you have court ordered visitation with your child, as well.
In a case filed for paternity reasons, you will undergo a DNA test. Typically these tests are administered at no cost to you or your child’s mother.
Come prepared for any court hearing or appearance
If a court is going to determine child support in any of these hearings it is crucial that you come prepared with documents to help a judge, verify your income. Tax returns, pay stubs and anything else that you have that can show a court how much money you earn on a monthly and yearly basis. Your net monthly resources will be determined and then a percentage of those resources will go towards your child support obligation. This is assuming that you will be named as the noncustodial parent, of course.
In the future, if you find that you cannot pay the required amount of child support on a monthly basis you should pay as much money as you can. Partial payments are better than no payments at all and will reflect a willingness on your part to pay as much as you can, as often as you can towards the care and upbringing of your child. The Office of the Attorney General can also initiate child support enforcement cases on behalf of the State of Texas. If you have shown a willingness to even make partial payments, your case may avoid future court dates.
Looking ahead, if your income takes a dip you need to contact their office as quickly as you can to alert them to this. Your responsibility to pay support will not end, but at least by notifying them, you are doing your parent to avoid any surprises.
More on child support, paternity, and the Office of the Attorney General will be posted tomorrow
Thank you for sharing part of your day with us here on our blog. We like to share information with people in our community and those of you living around the world. Any questions about the material included in this blog can be addressed to the attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan.
Similarly, if you have any questions about your own set of family circumstances please do not hesitate to contact our office. We offer free of charge consultations six days a week where we can answer any questions that you have and offer feedback that you can use in your daily life. We take a great deal of pride in serving our community and look forward to an opportunity to help you and your family in the future.