Suppose you have ever considered filing a divorce or child custody case in Harris County or any of our surrounding counties. Then you probably wondered where it is you should start the process of learning about how to go about doing that. Telling yourself that you don't know very much about the process and then wanting to learn as much as you can is an excellent instinct to have period many people will attempt to go about filing a lawsuit in the family courts of Southeast Texas and will be unsuccessful in doing so because they have not planned out their steps and know little about what to expect.
If nothing else, by admitting that you have a lot to learn about the process and steps involved, you will be able to move forward with confidence. Even more important than moving forward with confidence, you will be able to move forward intentionally and with a plan designed to not only accomplish your goals but to do so then as fast and efficiently a manner as possible. The tricky part about all of this is that our courts, our assistant that most everyone reads blogs, are unfamiliar with. That's not a bad thing either. If you can make it fairly far in life without ever having had to expose yourself to the court system, then you have led a fairly productive life, I would imagine.
In reality, the first thing you need to do before filing a family lawsuit in Texas is to determine whether or not you need an attorney to represent you in the case. Counsel represents most people who go through a divorce or custody case. Whether or not this is because they hired an attorney of their own free will or have done so because their spouse or co-parent doesn't matter. When you have an attorney representing you, the logistical and process-oriented questions you may have will likely be taken care of without you being involved much in that process.
However, I always encourage our clients here at the Law Office of Bryan Fagan to learn as much as possible about not only their specific case but about the process in general. Remember that your divorce or child custody case belongs to you and does not belong to your attorney. The attorney doesn't have to live with the results of your case much longer than they represent you. Rather, you are the one who will be responsible for the outcome of your case, and therefore, it would behoove you to be involved throughout the process.
One of the initial documents that will be filed in your case is called a civil case information sheet. This form will be processed along with your original petition for divorce or your suit affecting the parent-child relationship. The information that typically is included in a civil case information sheet is recorded these days electronically, and therefore, no physical sheet must be filed along with the documents. Keep in mind that if you reside in a County where you are filing your documentation in person with physical documents, then you should probably have a civil case information sheet ready to go with your filing documents.
What is included in a civil case information sheet?
As I mentioned a moment ago, a physical civil case information sheet will likely not be required in your case. Most Texas counties only accept electronic filings, and therefore, a physical copy of the form will usually not have to be obtained. However, I still think that the information included in the form is important and can provide us a perfect overview of a civil case in Texas, specifically for our purposes, as a family case.
First and foremost, your case will be identified not by your name or that of your opposing party but by cause number. The court will assign the car's number in the order that your case is received and filed. Every document filed in your case will have this cause number at the top, and it will be the main identifying marker. You can imagine how many divorce cases a particular court hears over a one or five-year period. As a result, courts assign numbers to cases to keep track of them.
There may be multiple courts that hear family law cases or only one in the county where you reside. In Harris County, there are many family courts, and your case will be randomly assigned to one of them once it is filed. Your attorney can talk to you more about the specific consequences of having your case heard by a particular judge.
The big thing for you to know is that every family court judge will do their level best to be fair in considering the merits of your case versus that of your opposing party. Of course, every judge has their own rules for their court in certain informal rules that attorneys are aware of after practicing long enough. This is all the more reason for you to hire an attorney with experience in family courts as they will be able to guide you better than someone inexperienced
your attorney will provide their information, including their name, email address, mailing address, telephone, as well as their State Bar number when completing this form. That way, the scheduling clerk or filing clerk for the judge will know who to contact if there are any problems or questions about documentation filed in your case. Again, this is information more for your attorney than you, but at the risk of being overly explanatory, I wanted to let you know any documents filed in your case.
In Harris County, the civil case information sheet had its section for family law cases. You would select the type of family law case you were trying to file, whether adoption, child custody, child support, enforcement, modification, or divorce. Each clerk in each court will use this information to assign your case to a particular court, and from there, your case can begin in earnest.
Filing fees for a family law case
Bear in mind that it costs money to file a civil case in Texas. The district or county clerk where you reside will have publicly available the fees associated with various civil cases. As part of hiring an attorney, the attorney will pay those costs out of any retainer or initial payments made to them. It is fairly standard for a divorce in Texas for the filing fees to be over $200. If you are filing your divorce or child custody case, you may be able to submit a statement of inability to afford the filing fees to see if a judge will waive them for you.
What happens after your petition is filed successfully?
I think most people assume that once your petition is filed, your case takes off as far as its pace is concerned. These folks are missing because you are still required to notify your lawsuit to your opposing party. For example, if you are filing for divorce, you still need to notify your spouse of having done so. This is true even if your spouse is aware of your having filed for divorce beforehand. This process is called giving legal notice to the opposing party.
In a divorce or child custody case, it is typically only your spouse or Co-parent that must be notified of the lawsuit. You would take on the petitioner's role as the person who has filed the petition in your divorce or child custody case. You are the spouse or Co-parent who would become the respondent or the person who responds to your petition. Once you have all these issues settled, you then need to determine how you will provide or give legal notice of the lawsuit to the opposing party.
Along with the information contained in the civil case information sheet and the original petition, you would then need to ask the court clerk to issue a citation addressed to your opposing party. The citation is a document that legally notifies your opposing party of the lawsuit and requires the person providing notice to specify the date in time the notice was accomplished.
Please note that you cannot serve your spouse directly, even if you do not have an attorney. Rather, you or your lawyer must hire a process server or constable to pick up the documents from the court and physically serve them upon your opposing party. The key to this discussion is that you must formally serve notice upon the respondent when your case is contested under most circumstances.
The main exception to the requirement that you notify your opposing party of the lawsuit is if they sign a waiver of citation. A waiver of citation does just what you think it would cool in it acknowledges that the respondent is formally waiving their right to receive personal notice of the lawsuit having been filed against them. This typically happens in uncontested divorces.
What is an uncontested divorce?
In civil litigation, there are two kinds of cases: uncontested cases in contested cases. The vast majority of divorces in Texas are contested. This means that you and your Co-parent have disagreements regarding certain subjects and are therefore requesting that a judge be made available to decide these issues if you and your spouse cannot agree upon a settlement in mediation or outside of the courtroom.
Disagreeing on any number of subjects with your spouse does not necessarily mean that your case is going to trial. The vast majority of Texas divorces are contested but also do not go to court. Rather, people like you utilize informal settlement negotiation and mediation to arrive at settlements every day. I would estimate that somewhere around 90% of Texas divorces settle rather than proceed to a contested trial. That is how effective mediation is at eliminating the need for litigation.
An uncontested divorce means that you and your spouse have no disagreements regarding any relevant issue to your case. This means that you agree on all subjects related to your children and the division of your community estate. I typically recommend that you still attend a mediation session to hammer out a formal mediated settlement agreement to people in this position. This will not only put into writing your agreements but will prevent either one of you from backing out on your settlement later on. There is nothing wrong in theory with a back-of-the-envelope type recitation of your settlement agreement, but it will not hold up in court if one of you decides to renege at a later date.
If you and your spouse believe that yours will be an uncontested divorce, then a waiver of citation can be filled out at the beginning of your case by the respondent. The respondent would sign an affidavit stating that they have received the original divorce petition and waive the right to be personally served with notice of the lawsuit. Once that is done, the petitioning party wood file the waiver with the court, and the divorce could proceed as normal from that point.
Signing a waiver of citation does not mean that the person would necessarily waive their right to negotiate on any number of subjects if a future disagreement occurs. What's more, the waving party can still receive notifications from the court of any pending court dates or deadlines. What a waiver of citation does is save a little bit of money in terms of having to complete a citation and hire A process server and saves time by allowing you and your spouse to proceed into walking down of your divorce terms sooner rather than later.
Recommendations for starting your family case on the right foot
The decision to begin a family law case should not be taken lightly. Although it may not feel like it at the moment, you are changing the trajectory in the course of your family's lives by doing so. Even though there may be a long-term benefit to having filed the case, much of the time, you are undoubtedly going to run into issues regarding problems associated with your children or your finances during a family case. This is something that I don't relish telling you but at the same time is something you need to be aware of before your case begins.
Depending on your circumstances, you should think about whether or not you would let your spouse know ahead of time that you are filing for divorce. Certainly, if your spouse is a threat to your physical safety for various reasons, then you should consider filing your case in tandem with a plan to exit your home. Having a safety plan in place for you and your children to be able to leave home before filing is a great idea. You will want to have a place to stay, at least temporarily, before pulling the trigger on a divorce.
Next, you should begin to collect documents, information, and other things that will Be relevant to your divorce. Tax returns, bank statements, investment statements, and documents associated with your home and the mortgage are all the sort of things that may become relevant at some point in your divorce. If you have children, then copies of their report cards, interactions with teachers, letters from the school, and any other documents regarding their education or health will almost certainly be helpful at some point down the line.
At some point in your case, you may lose access to your home, and it is better to have these documents with you rather than to risk not being able to get to them for some reason later on in your case. Once you have determined that a family law case is what is best for your family, your children, and yourself, you should not neglect to learn as much as possible about your case and what is required of you within that case. Going to blogs like ours is a great place to start.
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 the Law 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 opportunity for you to learn more about the law in Texas and how it can relate to your family's specific circumstances.