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The relationship between pets, children and divorce in Texas

Are you under the age of thirty and going through a divorce? What about over the age of 55 and divorcing your spouse? These two groups- millennials and older adults- are more likely than other groups, I have found through experience, to not have children but have animals at home. Why is this a relevant topic to discuss here on our blog today? Well, believe it or not, many people are in a situation where their pets are so important to them and their spouse that a possession/visitation schedule is needed.

You read that correctly: couples in 2020 will spend time and money coming up with schedules to define when each person can be with their dog/cat/parakeet. It may sound like I am teasing you or being flippant about this. I'm not. Trust me- I've seen people care about much stranger things than this. The point is that what is important to some people may not be important to you and vice versa. So, if you love your dog or cat and are going through a divorce in Texas this is a blog post for you.

The framework to create a possession schedule for your pet was created about ten years ago by a Texas appellate court. It started with a family who sued an animal shelter for killing their pet dog by mistake. The family had brought the animal in for a routine medical procedure, the employee acted negligently in performing their job duty and as a result, the family dog passed away.

The key to coming out this case was that the Texas appellate court determined that human beings (like you and me) could be awarded damages based on the memories and sentimentality associated with a pet dog that was killed against the will of the owner. What you need to take away from this case is: dogs have value even if they are replaceable pieces of property with little actual value. They have an emotional value which is important in and of itself in 21stcentury Texas. 

So, if your spouse loves your dog you shouldn't be surprised if her attorney speaks to yours about setting up a visitation schedule. I don't believe that a judge would go out on a limb to do so if you do not ask for that to be done. However, in settlement negotiations, you can include pretty much whatever you want into this process.

Where the pick up/drop off of the pet will take place, who pays the veterinarian bills, pet insurance, supplies, grooming- you name it. These are all aspects of your divorce that you thought you would avoid by not having kids. Not so fast, my friend. Consider how badly you want to keep your dog before agreeing to any of this. It may just be better off for everyone involved for you to cede possession of the dog to your spouse and instead ask for the property to be paid to you from another source to compensate you for giving up possession of your four-legged friends.

What about the rights of a parent of a special needs child?

You will need to spend a lot of time and thought regarding your child if he or she is special needs. The rights and duties that you and your spouse possess regarding your special needs child are incredibly important to address before the conclusion of your divorce. It is the best time to do so rather than attempting to come back to court after your divorce has already been decided. 

Because your child has a special need you may have to consider issues that most families with children do not. I am thinking about medical and psychiatric treatment that your child may require which calls for you and your spouse to work together, independently or exclusively to make decisions. In some circumstances, you or your spouse may be better suited to have the exclusive right to make decisions in these areas.

You will likely need to be more forthcoming regarding the well-being of your child with the other parent. For example, if you take your child to a doctor's appointment and your ex-spouse is not present then you will need to provide updates on your child's condition and any change in their treatment regimen. The reason for this is that communication, active and open, is essential to making sure that your special needs child receives the care he deserves.

If you want what is best for your child, you will co-parent with your ex-spouse. Remember how difficult it was to raise your special needs child when you lived in the same house and your ex-spouse? You are now in a situation where you will be living miles apart physically and even further apart emotionally. This is a potentially dangerous situation for raising a child- especially a special needs child. A lot can fall between the cracks. It is up to you to make sure that your child is cared for to the best of your ability. 

For instance, you may need to create a provision in your family court orders that requires weekly, if not daily, updates for the other parent when you have your child. There are websites devoted to co-parenting. You can use email, Google calendar, Google docs, etc. Allow technology to be your friend. This nice part of technology is that you can update your ex-spouse on the condition of your child and never have to be in the same room as him or her.

You need to first communicate with your attorney as to what language needs to be included in your final decree of divorce as far as your special needs child is concerned. If there are particular aspects of raising this child that need to be noted this is the time to do so. Protect your child’s well-being by including specific language that you believe is essential to the case. It takes effort to get this done but it is well worth it. 

Rights associated with periods of possession for your special needs child

If your child has a special need then you may need to change the language that is typically included in court orders regarding periods of possession. Every parent coming out of a family law case must support their child. However, as the parent of a special needs child, you may feel the need to include language in your final decree of divorce which creates a greater responsibility and duty on your part to provide food and medical care for your child due to their having a special need. Does your child need a special diet due to their impairments? What about medical care that is weekly in nature? If so, plan on including language that creates a duty for you and your child’s other parent that ordinarily would not be there.

This is an especially important thing to do if you and your child’s other parent do not necessarily see eye to eye on every aspect of raising your child. You will want to make sure that the necessities for your child are met even in periods of disagreement between yourself and your ex-spouse. You will likely need to assign to one parent the exclusive right to make certain medical decisions or designate a person (doctor, therapist, counselor, etc.) who can step in and play tie-breaker if you and your ex-spouse do not agree on a certain subject.

Let’s say that your child suffers from a physical impairment that is benefitted by consistent physical therapy. The physical therapy has exercises that are to be performed at home every day. If your child is splitting time between your home and that of your ex-spouse, you both need to be on the same page as far as carving out time to have these exercises completed each day. Consider putting language into your court orders that requires both of you to do so. 

You are doing this to protect your child from an absent-minded or skeptical ex-spouse. If he or she does not believe that these exercises are effective or necessary, odds are good that he will not make your child do them each day. However, if you create a duty within your court orders that these exercises need to be done then you can hold him accountable for not having followed through with the exercises as prescribed.

Finally, one parent should be named as the one who is in charge of speaking with disability carriers and the government regarding the benefits that your special needs child is receiving. That way there is no question which one of you will need to make phone calls, send emails and organize this part of your child’s care. Keeping the other parent up to date on any changes or problems is essential to keeping everyone on the same page. 

How to handle educational decisions for a special needs child 

If your child suffers from a special need of some sort that impacts their educational outlook, you and your ex-spouse are probably already very involved in their school-life. Nowadays different schools and different school districts have focuses that are heavily into children with special needs. It could be that you chose where you were going to live based on their proximity to a school with a positive reputation for working with families whose children have the special need as yours does. If you have been meeting with principals and other administrators to help guide them towards a plan that works for your child then you are exactly who I am trying to reach with this section of today's blog post.

The bottom line is that public school districts and private schools alike have tight budgets. As such, everything else being equal, they would prefer not to spend a bunch of extra money on your student. This doesn’t mean that they do not care about your child or that they do not understand the problems your child has. However, what it does mean is that the needs of your child may have to be met with help from outside of the school district. 

Your court order comes into play in this area because if the order calls on one parent to have the exclusive right to make educational decisions the school will need to know this. You do not want to be in a position where your child is being offered benefits through the school but he or she cannot take advantage of them because you and your ex-spouse do not agree on some aspect of the school plan. However, if your decree held that you had the exclusive right to make decisions for your child then that would not be an issue. 

Technology and your children: tomorrow’s blog post topic

Your child is going to interface with technology. This is an almost unavoidable fact given that we are living in a world that is comprised of more and more technological innovations. These innovations have benefited our lives tremendously but have also presented problems to us and our children.

In tomorrow's blog post from the Law Office of Bryan Fagan, we will spend some time discussing technology and social media and their impact on the relationship you have with your children after a child custody or divorce case. We do not want to underestimate the potential impacts of technology on our children's lives and may need to seek out language to put in your court order to offer a certain level of protection from harm.

In the meantime, 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 here in our office. These consultations are a great opportunity for you to ask questions and receive feedback about your particular circumstances. 

It is our honor to serve our community by representing people just like you in the family courts of southeast Texas. Our objective in every case we handle is to help our clients the best we can by providing guidance, advice, and results that benefit them and their families.

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