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?

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.

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.

Collaborative Divorce: Fast Five Questions and Answers

There are lots of things about Collaborative Divorce that are misunderstood. These Five Questions and Answers should clear up some of the more common misconceptions:

1. Can my spouse and I do a Collaborative Divorce without lawyers?

No. The term Collaborative Divorce does not mean the same thing as Amicable Divorce, Agreed Divorce, or Uncontested Divorce. A Collaborative Divorce may in fact be amicable. If it ends with an Agreed Decree, then it is an agreed divorce. And a Collaborative Divorce may be more or less uncontested – for more on that see this earlier Blog post.

But, a Collaborative Divorce in Texas is by definition a case that is conducted pursuant to the Collaborative Family Law Act, which is Title 1A of the Texas Family Code. Section 15.052 of Title 1A states that a Collaborative Divorce is one “in which parties: (A) sign a collaborative family law participation agreement; and (B) are represented by collaborative family law lawyers.”

So, when a potential client comes to an attorney and says, “I have been doing a Collaborative Divorce with my husband/wife and his/her lawyer, but now I think I need to get a lawyer,” the potential client is at best mistaken as to what is going on, and at worst being defrauded.

2. Do we have to use Neutrals in our Collaborative law case?

The traditional Texas model for Collaborative Divorce is two lawyers, plus two neutrals – a Financial Professional and a Mental Health Professional.

The Financial Professional is tasked with gathering and assembling the financial information of the parties, helping the parties work on budgeting, and offering expertise on various financial matters.

The Mental Health Professional is not a part of the process to psychoanalyze the parties. His or her job is to help the parties develop a parenting plan, if there are children involved, conduct the meetings that are a part of the Collaborative Process, and offer suggestions for matters that will help meet the parties’ personal goals, e.g. closure with step-children.

But, there is no requirement that neutrals be used. Or that both neutrals be used. If the parties and the attorneys agree, a Collaborative Divorce can proceed without one or both of the traditional neutrals.

3. Do I have to use an attorney from the list that my spouse gave me?

No. Although many Collaborative Divorce attorneys are members of “Practice Groups,” not all are. Moreover, there is no requirement that a husband or wife choose a Collaborative attorney from the list provided by his or her spouse.

There is no requirement to choose an attorney from any Practice Group and the choice of an attorney is completely up to the party.

4. Will a Collaborative case be faster than a non-collaborative case?

There is no way of knowing. A collaborative divorce may be faster than a litigation case, but it may also take more time. A non-collaborative divorce must last for at least 60 days, unless a waiver is obtained based upon family violence. How much longer a case lasts depends upon whether the parties are able to settle and when. For more on the stages of a divorce, see this prior blog post.

It is unlikely that a Collaborative Divorce will take less than 60 days, but many Collaborative cases end far earlier than many hotly contested divorces.

5. Will a Collaborative Divorce be less expensive than a non-collaborative divorce?

Once again, there is no way of knowing. Collaborative Divorces involve a series of meetings with at least two attorneys, and probably two neutrals billing at hourly rates.

Prior to each meeting, there may be some telephone calls between the attorneys and their clients and between the Team of attorneys and neutrals – all billed at hourly rates. There may be pre-meetings of the Team before the Joint meetings of everyone, and there is typically a Team debriefing period after the meeting – all billed at hourly rates.

Given that it is unlikely that a Collaborative Divorce would be wrapped up without at least three or four lengthy meetings, it’s not hard to see that there may be considerable cost to a Collaborative Case.

But, given that a non-collaborative case can involve lengthy hearings with a considerable number of hours spent in preparation by both sides, and can sometimes involve both parties hiring financial and/or mental health experts, it’s easy to see that in some cases Collaborative Divorce is much less expensive than non-collaborative divorce.

Bonus Question:

6. Is Collaborative Divorce only appropriate if there is no conflict?

No. Collaborative cases can have much of the same angst that traditional cases have – sometimes more. A Collaborative Divorce has many benefits that traditional cases do not, and they can be successfully completed even where the parties have serious disagreements and issues.

To discuss your case and whether it would be a good candidate to handle in the Collaborative Model, call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418. You can also write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com or find us on our website www.dfwdivorce.com. We are Beal Law Firm, PLLC.

Mediation: How does that work?

Mediations happen all the time in Family Law, whether divorce, custody, grandparent rights, or another type of case. Most cases settle and many if not most settle at mediation.

So what is Mediation?

Mediation is a process whereby the mediator attempts to get the parties to reach an agreement. Typically, during a modern Family Law mediation, the parties begin and end in separate rooms. Often they never see each other during the entire mediation.

The mediator is a neutral 3rd party that goes back and forth between the rooms until the case settles, an impasse is declared, or the end of the scheduled mediation is reached. Most mediations are scheduled as either “half-day” or “full-day” mediations, although some are scheduled for shorter or longer periods.

While in the rooms with the parties, the mediator discusses the pros and cons of the case and often points out weaknesses in each party’s case. Usually, the mediator focuses on discussing the weakness of a party with that party. In other words, the mediator is not a cheer leader for either party when speaking with him or her. Many times, each party will believe that the mediator is on the other party’s side, because the mediator only focuses on the weakness of the party with whom he or she is speaking.

Mediations are a part of most family law litigation, if the case is not settled at an earlier stage. (Click here to ready more about the stages of most family law cases.)

The court can order the parties to mediation, and often does, prior to allowing the case to come to trial. In some cases, the court will order that the case be mediated more than once. Some cases mediate based on an agreement of the parties, without a court order.

Although some people mistakenly believe that mediation or hiring a mediator is something that is only done instead of hiring an attorney, the reality is that having an attorney is the only way for a party to properly obtain legal advice.

In its ETHICAL GUIDELINES FOR MEDIATORS, the Texas Supreme Court has stated clearly that a mediator “should not give legal or other professional advice to the parties,” meaning that if parties try to mediate without having attorneys there is no one present to give them advice as to what their rights are and how they should proceed.

Moreover, although there are some non-lawyers that claim to be competent family law mediators, if such a mediator gave any legal advice to either party, he or she would not only be acting contrary to the Ethical Guidelines for Mediators, but engaged in the Unauthorized Practice of Law.

For the most part, divorce and other types of family law are zero sum games – what one party gets, the other does not, and vice versa. Being in a mediation without a trained legal expert who is duty bound to advise as to what one is entitled to and how best to achieve it can have devastating consequences.

One of the most important aspects of the law for which a party needs competent legal counsel is the wording and meaning of any proposed Mediated Settlement Agreement – the MSA. Once an MSA is fully executed, it is virtually written in stone. If a party signs one that contains critical errors, he or she may make a deal that cannot be undone…ever.

To discuss your situation with the attorneys of the Beal Law Firm call 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418 or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. We can be found on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.

Divorce, Custody, and Family Law: How long will my case last

Trying to guess how long a case will last is very difficult for attorneys. The answer depends so much on what the parties do. It also depends, to some extent on what the court does.

Most clients’ cases could be over with very quickly, but the client may not like the outcome. That’s because almost any case can be settled in a matter of days or less, if one side is willing to give the other everything he or she wants.

Although there are many uncertainties, there are a few things we know. In Texas, unless a waiver is obtained based upon Family Violence, a divorce must be on file for at least 60 days before the court can sign the final decree. The 60 day clock begins on the date of filing, not on the date of service or the date that the other party knows about the case.

While the 60 day waiting period is important, there is a great deal of misunderstanding about it.

The 60th day only matters if the parties have reached an agreement on all issues. If not, the 60th day just comes and goes and the court does not even pay attention to it.

In a Suit Affecting Parent-Child Relationship (a SAPCR), there is no waiting period. So for an original action between two parents that have never been married or a modification of custody or child support, the case can be filed and finalized in the same day, if the parties agree.

Every divorce and every SAPCR is a lawsuit. It may be the friendliest lawsuit in the world, or it may be the most acrimonious. Either way, it is going to end in only one of two ways: Settlement or Trial.

Some people say, “There’s no way we can settle.” And then, when asked about trial strategy, they say, “Oh, I don’t want a trial.” Unfortunately, those are the only two choices – Settlement or Trial.

If the case settles, whether it settles by negotiation, mediation, or some other way, it will end whenever the two sides come to an agreement. If the parties can’t settle, and the case goes to trial, it will end when the court is ready for it to.

Twenty or thirty years ago, in Texas’ big cities, it was fairly common for cases to last for years – sometimes four years, sometimes five, and sometimes longer than that.

Now, in 2016, cases tend to get resolved sooner. But to most people, still not in a fashion that they would consider fast. In smaller counties, sometimes the courts can set a case for trial more quickly than in larger counties. Sometimes, however, that’s not true, because the courts in the smaller counties are often handling family, criminal, and civil-non-family matters, while courts in the larger counties may only be handling family law matters.

In their “Rules of Judicial Administration – Updated With Amendments Effective March 22, 2016,” the Texas Supreme Court sets forth fairly short periods of time in which case should be resolved, “so far as reasonably possible.” The Court states, however, that “It is recognized that in especially complex cases or special circumstances it may not be possible to adhere to these standards.”

In reality, if not settled, a party to a family law case needs to count on the case lasting one to two years – maybe a little less, maybe more. Simply put, there are many things that can slow a case down, but very few that can speed it up…short of settlement.

If you would like to discuss the complexities or circumstances of your case with the attorneys of the Beal Law Firm, you can call us at 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418 anytime, or write us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com. We are on the web at www.dfwdivorce.com.