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.

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 and Custody: Five Military Family Law Quick Hits for Veteran’s Day

Military-Family Law cases can be some of the most challenging.

Here are the quick answers to five common questions that arise for those in the military when facing a divorce or custody case:

1. Is Military Retirement divisible at divorce?

Yes. The portion of military retirement that is attributable to the time that a couple is married is community property. All community property is divisible by the court at divorce. That means that a divorcing couple can agree how to divide military retirement at divorce, or if the case is not settled and a trial is necessary, the court will divide it in what it believes is a fair division.

2. How long do you have to be married to be entitled to a share of Military Retirement?

There is a common misconception that if a couple is not together for over 10 years, then the non-military spouse cannot obtain any part of the military retirement in a divorce. That is not true.

The 10-year rule deals with direct payments from the government. If the divorcing couple has not been together for at least ten years, then the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) will not make payments directly to the non-military spouse. All of the retirement pay will be paid to the retired military member, and the retired military member must pay the non-military ex-spouse.

3. Is Military Disability pay divisible at Divorce?

No. Disability payments are not like military retirement in divorce. The court cannot divide disability pay.

Whether and how the court will consider the disability payments in making a determination of how to divide the remainder of the community estate is something to be discussed in depth with an attorney that has good research and briefing skills, and a thorough understanding of family law and the military.

4. Can Active Duty military be named the Primary Conservatory of a child?

Absolutely! There is no legal impediment to an active duty military member being the primary conservator of a child. Whether the court would name the military member as the primary in a contested case would depend on what the court determined to be in the Best Interest of the Child.

A corollary consideration is whether it is possible that a geographic restriction could be put in place that would effectively limit the military member’s ability to be primary, if he or she received orders to live in an area outside the geographic boundary. Such a situation can happen, so the consideration of geographic restriction needs to be thought through at the time of the original order.

5. Can a Military Member designate someone to exercise his or her possession time with children while he or she is on deployment?

Yes, sort of — the Court can. In recent years, with the huge number of military deployments, the Texas Legislature added Subchapter L – “Military Duty” to Chapter 153 of the Texas Family Code.

Subchapter L provides, in part, as follows:

SUBCHAPTER L. MILITARY DUTY

Sec. 153.701. DEFINITIONS. In this subchapter:

(1) “Designated person” means the person ordered by the court to temporarily exercise a conservator’s rights, duties, and periods of possession and access with regard to a child during the conservator’s military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty.

(2) “Military deployment” means the temporary transfer of a service member of the armed forces of this state or the United States serving in an active-duty status to another location in support of combat or some other military operation.

(3) “Military mobilization” means the call-up of a National Guard or Reserve service member of the armed forces of this state or the United States to extended active duty status. The term does not include National Guard or Reserve annual training.

(4) “Temporary military duty” means the transfer of a service member of the armed forces of this state or the United States from one military base to a different location, usually another base, for a limited time for training or to assist in the performance of a noncombat mission.

Sec. 153.702. TEMPORARY ORDERS. (a) If a conservator is ordered to military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty that involves moving a substantial distance from the conservator’s residence so as to materially affect the conservator’s ability to exercise the conservator’s rights and duties in relation to a child, either conservator may file for an order under this subchapter without the necessity of showing a material and substantial change of circumstances other than the military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty.

(b) The court may render a temporary order in a proceeding under this subchapter regarding:

possession of or access to the child; or

(2) child support.

(c) A temporary order rendered by the court under this subchapter may grant rights to and impose duties on a designated person regarding the child, except that if the designated person is a nonparent, the court may not require the designated person to pay child support.

(d) After a conservator’s military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty is concluded, and the conservator returns to the conservator’s usual residence, the temporary orders under this section terminate and the rights of all affected parties are governed by the terms of any court order applicable when the conservator is not ordered to military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty.

Sec. 153.703. APPOINTING DESIGNATED PERSON FOR CONSERVATOR WITH EXCLUSIVE RIGHT TO DESIGNATE PRIMARY RESIDENCE OF CHILD.

(a) If the conservator with the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child is ordered to military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty, the court may render a temporary order to appoint a designated person to exercise the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child during the military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty in the following order of preference:

(1) the conservator who does not have the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child;

(2) if appointing the conservator described by Subdivision (1) is not in the child’s best interest, a designated person chosen by the conservator with the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child; or

(3) if appointing the conservator described by Subdivision (1) or the person chosen under Subdivision (2) is not in the child’s best interest, another person chosen by the court.
(b) A nonparent appointed as a designated person in a temporary order rendered under this section has the rights and duties of a nonparent appointed as sole managing conservator under Section 153.371.

(c) The court may limit or expand the rights of a nonparent named as a designated person in a temporary order rendered under this section as appropriate to the best interest of the child.

Sec. 153.704. APPOINTING DESIGNATED PERSON TO EXERCISE VISITATION FOR CONSERVATOR WITH EXCLUSIVE RIGHT TO DESIGNATE PRIMARY RESIDENCE OF CHILD IN CERTAIN CIRCUMSTANCES.

(a) If the court appoints the conservator without the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child under Section 153.703(a)(1), the court may award visitation with the child to a designated person chosen by the conservator with the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child.

(b) The periods of visitation shall be the same as the visitation to which the conservator without the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child was entitled under the court order in effect immediately before the date the temporary order is rendered.

(c) The temporary order for visitation must provide that:

(1) the designated person under this section has the right to possession of the child for the periods and in the manner in which the conservator without the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child is entitled under the court order in effect immediately before the date the temporary order is rendered;

(2) the child’s other conservator and the designated person under this section are subject to the requirements of Section 153.316, with the designated person considered for purposes of that section to be the possessory conservator;

(3) the designated person under this section has the rights and duties of a nonparent possessory conservator under Section 153.376(a) during the period that the person has possession of the child; and

(4) the designated person under this section is subject to any provision in a court order restricting or prohibiting access to the child by any specified individual.

(d) The court may limit or expand the rights of a nonparent designated person named in a temporary order rendered under this section as appropriate to the best interest of the child.

Sec. 153.705. APPOINTING DESIGNATED PERSON TO EXERCISE VISITATION FOR CONSERVATOR WITHOUT EXCLUSIVE RIGHT TO DESIGNATE PRIMARY RESIDENCE OF CHILD.

(a) If the conservator without the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child is ordered to military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty, the court may award visitation with the child to a designated person chosen by the conservator, if the visitation is in the best interest of the child.

(b) The temporary order for visitation must provide that:

(1) the designated person under this section has the right to possession of the child for the periods and in the manner in which the conservator described by Subsection (a) would be entitled if not ordered to military deployment, military mobilization, or temporary military duty;

(2) the child’s other conservator and the designated person under this section are subject to the requirements of Section 153.316, with the designated person considered for purposes of that section to be the possessory conservator;

(3) the designated person under this section has the rights and duties of a nonparent possessory conservator under Section 153.376(a) during the period that the designated person has possession of the child; and

(4) the designated person under this section is subject to any provision in a court order restricting or prohibiting access to the child by any specified individual.

(c) The court may limit or expand the rights of a nonparent designated person named in a temporary order rendered under this section as appropriate to the best interest of the child.

Being in the military or being married to someone in the military has a great many challenges. Trying to understand all of your rights in a Divorce or Custody case without competent legal help can make for some additional, possibly insurmountable challenges.

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

What if I don’t like the way it is? The basics of Child Custody Modification

In Family Law, children’s issues are very different than property issues. When dealing with children’s issues, Courts are allowed to redo their orders over and over and over again. With property, pretty much once it’s done, it’s done.

Issues involving a child are decided in what is known as a SAPCR. That stands for Suit Affecting Parent-Child Relationship.

SAPCRs can be stand-alone cases, e.g. if two unmarried people have a child together, or they can be a part of a divorce.

Children’s issues include:

  1. Custody – Joint Managing Conservator, Sole Managing Conservator, and Possessory Conservator
  2. Residency
  3. Rights to make medical decisions, educational decisions, and psychological decisions
  4. Possession schedule, including holiday schedules, summer schedules, etc.
  5. Rights concerning extracurricular activities
  6. Electronic access, including texting, phone calls, Face Time, and Skype
  7. Child Support
  8. Health Insurance payments
  9. Payments for uninsured healthcare expenses

The results of a SAPCR case – whether a stand-alone SAPCR or a SAPCR that is a part of a divorce – can be re-litigated repeatedly. Either party can file for a modification of the orders, if certain criteria are met.

In order to properly seek a modification of any non-support issues, one of three things needs to have happened:

  1. There must have been a material and substantial change in circumstances; or
  2. A child for whom modification is sought must be over the age of 12 and ready to tell the judge that he or she wants to move to the other parent’s house; or
  3. The conservator who has the exclusive right to designate the primary residence of the child has voluntarily relinquished the primary care and possession of the child to another person for at least six months.

Texas Family Code Section 156.101.

In addition to having at least one of these three things, in order to win, the person asking for the change must prove to the court that the change is in the best interest of the child.

As you might guess, there is a lot more to it than this. Keep an eye on our blog for more information, and if you would like to discuss 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

 

I Want to Move – But I Don’t Want You to Move: Lifting the Geographic Restriction

Relocation cases are difficult. One of the main reasons is that it is hard to find a compromise. If mom and dad get a Texas divorce, and mom wants to move with the children to New York, the compromise of mom moving to Tennessee is not likely to make anyone happy. Since it’s hard to settle a relocation case, they often end up going to trial – and that can be expensive and time-consuming.

Relocation is really the other side of the geographic restriction coin. If the prior decree or order does not have a geographic restriction (also known as a residency restriction or domicile restriction), then theoretically there is no relocation case or battle that needs to be fought.

When there is a geographic restriction, any attempt by the primary parent to move beyond the restricted area, can lead to a relocation case. Relocation cases can be dealing with moves across town or moves out of State or out of the Country.

If tried to the judge alone (a “bench trial”), the issue of relocation is completely within the discretion of the court. The parties in a relocation case have a choice, however, because the issue can be tried to a jury. In fact, per the Texas Family Code, the judge cannot alter the jury’s finding on the issue.

So whether to a judge or jury, the question is: What kind of evidence will you need to win your side of the argument?

The Supreme Court of Texas in the case of Lenz v. Lenz listed a number of factors for courts to consider when making the determination of whether a request for relocation should be granted. These so-called Lenz Factors include the following:

  1. The reasons for and against the move;
  2. A comparison of education, health, and leisure opportunities;
  3. Whether any special needs or talents of the children can be accommodated;
  4. The effect on extended family relationships;
  5. The effect on visitation and communication with the noncustodial parent to maintain a full and continuous relationship with a child; and
  6. Whether the noncustodial parent has the ability to relocate.

When considering whether to file a relocation case or how to defend one, it is critical to determine and gather all the evidence that you can on all of the Lenz Factors.

If you need to talk to someone about geographic restriction (domicile restriction, residency restriction) and how to get it in place, keep it, or fight against it, you can contact us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com or find us at www.dfwdivorce.com