A New Judge for the 360th District Court

Does it matter who the Judge is?

As of January 1, 2017, the Judge of the 360th District Court in Tarrant County, Texas is the Honorable Patricia Bennett. Judge Bennett replaces Judge Michael Sinha, who had been the Judge of the 360th and, the prior to that, the Associate Judge of the 360th for years.

Judge Bennett has chosen Matt Riek to be her Associate Judge, and Judge Riek will take the bench on or about January 16, 2017. Judge Riek replaces Judge Cynthia Mendoza.

Both Judge Bennett and Judge Riek are Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, and each has years of experience in divorce, custody, and family law. Additionally, Judge Riek was one of the most sought after and well-respected family law mediators in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex prior to agreeing to accept the position of Associate Judge.

So, with these changes, one might ask: Does it matter who the Judge is?

The short answer, particularly in Family Law is Yes!!!

Family law – meaning divorce, custody, grandparent rights, child support, spousal support, alimony, etc. – is an area of the law that, unlike most areas, is governed by the “discretion of the court.” Under Texas law, the trial court judge has wide discretion in determining a number of items in family law. What that means in simple terms is that you are not entitled to have a jury make the decision, it has to be the judge, and your chances of getting an appellate court to overturn the trial court’s decision are extremely small.

Some of the things that a family court judge gets to decide with little chance of being overturned are:

  1. How the property will be divided in a divorce – Will the property be divided 50/50 or 60/40 or 80/20 or in some other ratio?
  2. What happens to the property in a divorce – Do you get to keep the house? Or does your soon-to-be Ex? Or is there a Court Order to sell it?
  3. Who gets to live in the house while the case is pending?
  4. Who has to pay which bills while the case is pending?
  5. Who gets custody of the children while the case is pending?
  6. How much child support will be paid and by whom to whom?
  7. How much temporary spousal support will be paid, if any, while the case is pending – even if it’s for years – and by whom, to whom?
  8. Does anyone deserve Spousal Maintenance – the Texas version of court-ordered alimony – and if so how much and for how long, within some limits?
  9. What will the rights and duties be with respect to the children? Do you have a say in who the children’s doctor is? Dentist is? Surgeon is? Will there be surgery? Will the children go to a psychiatrist?
  10. On what days and at what times will you be allowed to see your children?
  11. Will you be able to Facetime with your children? Call them? Email them?

These are just a few of the things that family court judges get to decide, and as long as that Judge stays on the bench and as long as the children stay in the county, the same judge will keep deciding these issues regarding your children until they age out of the system.

So what do you think? Does it matter who the judge of your court is?

Custody and Support: Five Simple Answers for Christmas Related Questions

But what if…

  1. Can I count the Christmas presents that I buy as child support?

No.

Generally speaking, court-ordered child support can only be discharged according to the terms dictated in the order. In fact, most orders contain a warning that says:

                No Credit for Informal Payments

                IT IS ORDERED that the child support as prescribed in this decree shall be exclusively discharged in the manner ordered and that any direct payments made by ______________ to ______________ or any expenditures incurred by ________________ during his/her periods of possession of or access to the child, as prescribed in this decree, for food, clothing, gifts, travel, shelter, or entertainment are deemed in addition to and not in lieu of the support ordered in this decree.

  1. If my ex agrees that I don’t have to pay all of my child support this month because I will be buying Christmas presents, is that true?

No.

In 1991, the Texas Supreme Court determined that the Family Code prohibited parents from making agreements to “modify court-ordered child support without court approval.”

Meaning that any agreements with your ex regarding child support, even if in writing, are unenforceable.

  1. If my ex does not let me have the children like he/she is supposed to for Christmas, can I withhold child support?

No.

A standard warning that is to be included in all support orders is as follows:

REFUSAL BY A PARTY TO ALLOW POSSESSION OF OR ACCESS TO A CHILD DOES NOT JUSTIFY FAILURE TO PAY COURT-ORDERED CHILD SUPPORT TO THAT PARTY.

So, regardless of whether the denial of access is a few minutes or the entirety of Christmas vacation, court ordered child support is still due. Whether the court will later put your ex in jail and give you make-up time is another matter for another day.

  1. If my ex is behind on child support, do I still have to give him/her the children for the Christmas possession?

Yes.

Another standard warning that should be in all orders is:

FAILURE OF A PARTY TO PAY CHILD SUPPORT DOES NOT JUSTIFY DENYING THAT PARTY COURT-ORDERED POSSESSION OF OR ACCESS TO A CHILD. 

So, regardless of whether your ex is ten payments behind in child support, one payment behind, or just late with this month’s payment, the court ordered possession is to be allowed. Note, however, that unlike child support, possession can be informally modified by the parties.

  1. If my court order does not contain all of the warnings discussed in this blog, is the answer different for me?

No.

These warnings simply state the law. And the law is the same, whether you have been warned or not.

To discuss any of this with the attorneys at the Beal Law Firm, call us at 214.414.0418 or 817.261.4333, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. We are on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

The Importance of Filing First

Being the first to file can give you advantages, regardless of how your divorce, custody, or other family law case proceeds.

If you know you’re about to be in a fight, hit first.

That advice works well on the playground, in a bar, or just about anywhere else you find yourself. It is especially true in the world of litigation, including divorce, custody and just about every other type of family law.

To understand why being the first to file matters, it is important to understand a little bit about the rules of the game you are in.

Texas family law cases are like all other civil litigation. They are governed by the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Under the Rules of Civil Procedure, the party filing first is called a Plaintiff or Petitioner. The other party is the Defendant or Respondent. In family law cases – divorce, custody, modification, child support, enforcement, etc. – the terms Petitioner and Respondent are used.

The Petitioner gets a tremendous number of advantages, if the case goes to trial. The Petitioner gets to conduct his or her portion of Voir Dire (Jury Selection) first. The petitioner gets to make his or her Opening Statement first. The petitioner gets to put on his or her Case-in-Chief first, and when it comes to Closing Argument, the Petitioner gets to speak both first and last.

These advantages are huge. Why? Think about it. When you were a child and in an argument with a brother, sister, or another child, didn’t you want to get your story out to mom or dad first? Why do people interrupt each other when arguing a point to a third party? Because everyone understands the advantage of trying to convince the arbiter of the logic and correctness of his or her point, before the opponent gets a chance to sway the decision maker.

That’s exactly why the rules are in the Rules of Civil Procedure. They are intended to give an advantage. It is understood that the one going first has an easier time of persuasion. And the Rules give the Petitioner this advantage, because the rules were designed primarily for cases in which the filing party is a Plaintiff, such as a car wreck or breach of contract case.

In those cases, the Plaintiff has the procedural advantages provided by going first, because he or she has the burden of proof.

In many family law cases, however, the parties have essentially the same burden. Both are trying to convince the judge that their proposed division of property is fairer than the other side’s proposed division, and/or they are trying to convince the judge or jury that their proposal for the children is more in the best interest of the children than the other sides proposal.

But what if you don’t plan to go to trial? Most people don’t. The reality is that there is no way of knowing at the beginning of a case whether you will go to trial or not.

There are only two ways to finish the case – settlement or trial. To settle, both people have to agree. If the parties cannot agree, there will have to be a trial.

But what if you absolutely believe that you know there will not be a trial? Unless you are one of the incredibly rare people that have complete agreement from the outset, you will still be negotiating something. In that case, being the one that holds the advantage that would be present if you went to trial gives you an advantage in the negotiation.

Finally, remember that even if you believe that none of this applies to you, the case is going to have to be filed at some point by somebody – assuming that the case is going to happen – so it may as well be you. Nothing about this post should be taken as a comment on how to file. That is a topic for a future post, but as a prelude: be aware that there are very non-threatening and amicable ways to file.

Additionally, nothing in this post should be taken as encouraging any case. As the saying goes, “the two worst days of my life were the day I went to court and lost and the day I went to court and won.” Being in a lawsuit of any kind is an emotionally and financially draining proposition – if you can stay out of litigation, do.

But this post ends as it started – if you know you’re about to be in a fight… And litigation, even if amicable, is a form of fighting.

If you need to discuss any of this with the attorneys of the Beal Law Firm call us at 817.261.4333, 214.414.0418, or write to us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. Beal Law Firm is www.dfwdivorce.com.

The Many Parts of a Texas Divorce

In a previous post, we discussed the procedural parts of a Texas Divorce. In this post, the goal is to identify the substantive parts of a Texas Divorce.

Divorces are interesting types of cases, because unlike most cases, they have discrete parts, each of which needs their own jurisdictional analysis. That is, a court may have the power to deal with one part of the case, but not with another.

Not all cases are the same, so some of these parts may not be present in your case, but since there is a great deal of misunderstanding about how divorces work, it is a good idea to at least be aware of them, to be sure that they don’t belong in your case.

1. The Status of the Marriage

The Status of the Marriage is both the most important and least important part of the case – it is the judicial determination of whether the parties are divorced. As long as one or both parties is a resident of Texas, the court generally has the power to make this determination. Since Texas is a “no-fault” State, the court can grant the divorce without reference to either party being at fault. But, either or both parties can allege that the divorce should be granted on “fault” grounds, such as adultery or cruelty.

2. Division of Property

This part of the case involves how the marital estate is divided. The court does not have the power to take either party’s separate property as a part of the division of property. The court does have the power to divide the community estate, as long as the court has personal jurisdiction over the parties. Understanding personal jurisdiction can be tricky, so if either party does not reside in Texas, it is important to get competent legal advice on this topic.

As a part of the division of property, the court may assign the payment of debts, but it is important to note that the court cannot adversely affect the rights of third-party creditors. That is, if the creditor could sue you before the divorce if the debt was not paid, then the creditor will be able to sue you after the marriage if the debt is not paid – there is nothing you can agree to or that the court can order that can change that.

3. Custody

Custody is a legal word with a fuzzy definition. Basically, if there has been a child born or adopted during the marriage that is still a minor or disabled, or both, the court will need to deal with issues of conservatorship, geographic restriction, rights, duties, and possession of the child.

There are a great many presumptions that aid in the predictability of this section, but unlike property division, a jury can be used to decide the ultimate issues of custody, i.e. Primary Conservatorship and Geographic Restriction.

The analysis of whether the Court has the power to issue a valid, binding custody order can be very confusing. The answers are found in a complicated piece of legislation known as the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (the “UCCJEA”).

4. Child Support

Although often even courts treat Child Support as though it is a simple mathematical analysis, under the family code it is not. The statutory presumption is that guideline child support should be used, but there are a great many other factors that the court should consider.

See this previous post for a discussion of those other factors.

5. Spousal Maintenance

Texas has had contractual alimony available for a long time, if not forever. Contractual alimony, however, is only obtained when one party or the other agrees to provide cash flow to the other after divorce.

Spousal Maintenance is the term that is used for the type of post-divorce, non-child-support, non-property division payments that the court can order over the objection of the soon-to-be-paying party. In order to get Spousal Maintenance, the party seeking it must prove a great many things, but the starting point is that he or she must fit in one of three categories:

  1. Be disabled;
  2. Be the victim of domestic abuse; or
  3. Be married for over ten years and not be able to provide for his or her minimum reasonable needs.

6.Tort or Other Cause of Action Against Your Spouse

Although many people don’t realize it, you can sue your spouse, in addition to divorcing him or her. To do so successfully, there must be a valid cause of action. That is, the spouse must have done something that amounts to a Tort or other type of cause of action.

Viable causes of action include assault, battery, false imprisonment, breach of fiduciary duty, and intentional infliction of emotional distress (also known as intentional infliction of mental anguish).

Whether one spouse should sue the other is a very complicated question, and competent legal advice is critical in making a decision on how to proceed.

To discuss your case with the attorneys of the Beal Law Firm, call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. You can find us on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

Divorce: Five Things to Think About before it happens

Divorce attorneys are often asked, “What should I do before I file my case?”

Or, “I know my spouse is about to file for divorce, what should I be doing?”

The question is asked, sometimes, assuming that the attorney will give some super-secret advice about how to effectively hide assets or destroy evidence. An ethical attorney won’t give that type of advice, because each party in a divorce is obligated to disclose everything he or she knows about the assets, their value, and where they are. If they have been disposed of improperly, the result can be bad for the one that did the disposing.

Additionally, destroying evidence can be considered spoliation or obstruction of justice, both of which can lead to very bad results.

So what should you do, if you know that a divorce is on the horizon? Consider these five things.

  1. Check for Spyware.

In this day and age, if anyone has had access to your computer, cell phone, iPad, etc. he or she can download software that will allow him or her to know everything that you are doing on your devise or computer. What that means is that changing passwords after the Spyware has been loaded won’t do any good to keep your spouse from knowing everything you and your attorney say to each other. So, if you believe that a divorce is on the way, a good first step to think about is getting all of your devices to a computer expert to have them checked for Spyware.

  1. Change passwords.

Don’t get confused by Step One into thinking that changing passwords is useless. Changing passwords on anything and everything is a great Step Two. Before you do though, make sure you prepare to do it right by getting a password keeper set up on a device that you know is secure. Then, set up strong, unique passwords for every account and device that you have.

  1. Get records of all of your assets and keep them in a safe place.

This is good advice for everyone, all the time – but especially someone about to go through a divorce. Keep in mind that “all your assets” means everything, regardless of whose name is on it. Get copies of all records for all accounts, whether they are checking, savings, money market, CD, 401(k), IRA, or other. Get all records for any and all pensions. Make a list of all significant property that you or your spouse have any ownership interest in. Take photos of everything that matters, including collectables, guns, coins, art, etc. Get records of any safe deposit box or storage facility. Get records of everything, and if you can’t get records of everything, get records of everything that you can.

  1. Stop posting things on Social Media.

Social Media posting may be the single worst thing that people do in divorce. Nothing good can come of it, and plenty of bad can. So stop. You have no right to privacy in a divorce with respect to things that you’ve posted, whether publicly or just to your close friends. Whether you can delete things that you have already posted is a matter of when you do it, why you do it, and what it is. The law is clear, however, that if are in a divorce and you delete postings in an effort to destroy evidence that could be used against you, you are committing spoliation and possibly obstruction of justice – both of which are bad.

  1. Think about Moving assets.

As long as you are not under any court orders that state otherwise and you are not committing fraud, you are entitled to protect your property by moving things like keepsakes and other irreplaceable things to a place where they can’t be destroyed. Whether you should move money and other assets is a tougher call. You may be legally entitled to do so, but you may create a problem that you otherwise don’t have. On the other hand, if you don’t make sure that you can survive, if your spouse moves, disposes of, or hides everything that he or she has access to, you may regret it later. This subject is a good one to get specific legal advice on from a good attorney that you can trust.

To discuss any of this with the attorneys at the Beal Law Firm, call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. You can find us on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

Divorce | Custody | Support: What do I have to do if I get served?

Many divorce and custody cases begin amicably. Some stay that way.

Even some of those that begin amicably have one party or the other served with papers at the beginning of the case. Sometimes it’s a strategy move, sometimes it’s a miscommunication between the attorney and the client, and sometimes it’s a mistake.

Most of the time it’s none of those. Most of the time the service is done because the filing party does not want the case to be amicable or is not sure that it can be.

Service of Process means service of the Petition that has been filed along with a Citation from the court. The Petition plus the Citation equals Process.

In Texas State Court, if you are served with Process, you have a certain amount of time in which to answer the suit. That amount of time is until “10:00 a.m. on the Monday next after the expiration of 20 days from the date of service.”

This time period is different for cases filed outside of Texas, and for Federal Cases. Virtually everything in family law – divorces, custody cases, child support cases, grandparent cases, etc. – is done in State Court.

So, if you get served with a Texas divorce or custody petition, even if you are outside of Texas, your deadline to answer is 10:00 a.m. on the “Monday next after the expiration of 20 days from the date of service.” Failure to answer by that time can put you in default.

If you are in default, you are subject to a default judgment. A default judgment is like losing by forfeiture in a sporting event.

In sports, if you are scheduled to play and you don’t show up, you lose by forfeit. In law, if you have been served and you do not answer, you can lose by default.

If you lose by default, it means that only the opposing party is presenting evidence to the court. In a divorce, a person in default could end up with little or none of the assets of the marriage – including his or her own 401K or pension. In a custody case, including a custody case within a divorce, a defaulted party may end up with little time with the children, higher than ordinary child support, and few rights.

It doesn’t take much to not get defaulted. If you have been served, all you have to do is answer the suit. An answer is basically any filing with the court that puts the court on notice that you do not want to have a default judgement taken against you.

If an answer is filed, it must be filed with the court in which the case is pending, and should be served on any other parties to the case or their attorneys. To serve it on the other party, if he or she has an attorney, all you have to do is fax it to them. Keep your proof that you sent the document by fax.

But, there are times when you don’t want to file an answer. There are times that you want to file more than an answer. And there are times that you need to file something prior to your answer and then an answer. It can get confusing.

If you need to discuss your situation with an attorney, contact the Beal Law Firm, PLLC at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com or call 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418. You can find us on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

Child Support: Additional factors for the court to consider

As discussed in a previous blog post, courts generally calculate child support based upon the Guidelines found in the Texas Family Code.

There is, however, a section of the family code that allows a court to determine if it would be “unjust or inappropriate under the circumstances” to apply the Guidelines.

Texas Family Code Section 154.123 provides “Additional Factors for Court to Consider” when determining the appropriate amount of child support.

Per the Family Code, the following are the factors that a court “shall consider evidence of”:

(1)  the age and needs of the child;

(2)  the ability of the parents to contribute to the support of the child;

(3)  any financial resources available for the support of the child;

(4)  the amount of time of possession of and access to a child;

(5)  the amount of the obligee’s net resources, including the earning potential of the obligee if the actual income of the obligee is significantly less than what the obligee could earn because the obligee is intentionally unemployed or underemployed and including an increase or decrease in the income of the obligee or income that may be attributed to the property and assets of the obligee;

(6)  child care expenses incurred by either party in order to maintain gainful employment;

(7)  whether either party has the managing conservatorship or actual physical custody of another child;

(8)  the amount of alimony or spousal maintenance actually and currently being paid or received by a party;

(9)  the expenses for a son or daughter for education beyond secondary school;

(10)  whether the obligor or obligee has an automobile, housing, or other benefits furnished by his or her employer, another person, or a business entity;

(11)  the amount of other deductions from the wage or salary income and from other compensation for personal services of the parties;

(12)  provision for health care insurance and payment of uninsured medical expenses;

(13)  special or extraordinary educational, health care, or other expenses of the parties or of the child;

(14)  the cost of travel in order to exercise possession of and access to a child;

(15)  positive or negative cash flow from any real and personal property and assets, including a business and investments;

(16)  debts or debt service assumed by either party;  and

(17)  any other reason consistent with the best interest of the child, taking into consideration the circumstances of the parents.

As illustrated by number 17, this list is non-exhaustive. Per the Texas Family Code, all evidence on the subject is to be considered. In reality, however, whether the court will allow you to introduce evidence of any of these factors depends upon the judge before whom the case is tried, subject to review by an appellate court.

To discuss child support with any of the attorneys at the Beal Law Firm, call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. Our web address is www.dfwdivorce.com.