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: Airline Pilot Possession Schedule

Pilots and Crew Members often need unique possession schedules, if they are going to spend quality time with their children.

Parents who are not together often have court orders detailing the times during which they each have possession of their children. These orders arise in Divorce and Custody cases.

Texas has a Standard Possession Schedule, an Expanded Standard Possession Schedule, and rules regarding what type of schedule a court should give for children under the age of three. All of these are laid out in the Texas Family Code, Chapter 153.

But, these standard concepts are not the only schedules available for the court or parties to choose from. When one or both parents have a job that does not allow for set possession times, the parties can agree to use an alternate schedule that is tailored for the lifestyle associated with the job. If the parties cannot agree to use such a schedule, one of the parties can ask the court to order a flexible schedule.

One such schedule is that used by Airline Pilots and members of Airline Flight Crews.

A typical Airline Pilots schedule or Air Crew schedule may include language that includes a “finding” by the Judge that the pilot/crew member is “unable to exercise predictable periods of possession occurring on the same days of each month” because of his or her “work and flight schedule.”

The order may go on to describe how and when the Pilot or other Crew Member receives his or her schedule and what the schedule contains.

In order to have a system that allows for consistent possession of the children by the parent with the inconsistent schedule, the Judge can order the airline-employed parent to deliver a copy of his or her schedule to the non-airline employed parent within a reasonable amount of time after receiving it, and to elect which weekends and weekdays the Pilot or Crew Member will be exercising. Although there may be a designated method that the parties are supposed to use to try to resolve any conflicts, since the Airline parent’s schedule is likely less flexible, an order would typically give the Airline parent’s choice priority.

If an Airline or Pilot’s Schedule is used, it is typical to include language that the unique terms will only apply “until such time as” the Airline parent “is no longer employed as an airline pilot [or crew member].” The order can then include terms for possession that will begin at that time, whether a Standard Possession Schedule or otherwise.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that there is no requirement that a Trial Judge give an Airline Parent a unique Airline Possession Schedule that meets all of his or her needs. In fact, in one Texas case several years ago, a Fort Worth Judge awarded a pilot a Standard Possession Schedule, despite evidence that the pilot would not be able to effectively exercise the schedule and would thus be denied the ability to frequently and consistently see his children. Fortunately for the pilot, the case was reversed by an Appellate Court on other grounds.

To discuss the unique needs of your situation with the lawyers of the Beal Law Firm, please 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.

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


Parental Alienation – What is it? What can a court do?

A Canadian Court got in the news this week when it took three children from their mother and gave them to their father. The news is that the court not only gave custody to the dad but cut off virtually all access of the mom. The court found that the children were victims of Parental Alienation or Parental Alienation Syndrome, also known as PAS.

So what is Parent Alienation? According to a judge speaking at the 42nd Annual Advanced Family Law seminar in Texas this last week, there’s no clear definition. Speaking as a part of a panel discussing the subject, the trial court judge stated, “what I think it is and what another judge thinks it is may be two different things,” or words to that effect.

Per the panel, some judges think that Parental Alienation does not exist unless the child states that he or she never wants to see the other parent again. Others do not have such a benchmark.

In an article entitled Differentiating between Parental Alienation Syndrome and Bona Fide Abuse-Neglect, Dr. Richard Gardner stated,

Parental alienation syndrome is a disorder that arises almost exclusively in the context of child-custody disputes. In this disorder, one parent (the alienator, the alienating parent, the PAS-inducing parent) induces a program of denigration against the other parent (the alienated parent, the victim, the denigrated parent). However, this is not simply a matter of “brainwashing” or “programming” in that the children contribute their own elements into the campaign of denigration.

The American Journal of Family Therapy. Vol. 27, No. 2, p 97-107 (April-June 1999)

Citing Dr. Gardner and others, in an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Matrimonial Law, Dr. Ira Turat described eight specific criteria for the diagnosis of PAS:

1. A Campaign of Denigration

This includes “direct and indirect criticisms, sarcasm, distorted communications, and/or other modes of interpersonal attack.”

2. An Inadequate Rationale for the Denigration

When asked, “the manipulated children offer weak, frivolous, or even absurd rationalizations for their hatred of the targeted parent.”

3. An Absence of Ambivalent Feelings

The child’s feelings about the targeted parent lack “appropriate balance….[t]he alienated parent is seen as ‘all-bad.’”

4. Alleged “Independent” Thinking

The child is encouraged by the alienating parent to believe that the thoughts are the child’s own “independent” thoughts.

5. Reflexive Support of the Alienating Parent

The child “aligns unconditionally with the parent instituting the alienation campaign.”

6. An Absence of Guilt

The child feels no guilt and “the alienated parent’s feelings are generally ignored.”

7. Scenarios Which Are Borrowed from the Alienator

The child uses “the alienating parent’s stories and explanations to articulate what is wrong with the targeted parent and as a rationale for despising the alienated parent.”

8. The Animosity Is Spread to Others Associated with the Targeted Parent

The friends and family of the targeted parent may also become subject to “unwarranted hostility” and “contempt.”

Parental Alienation Syndrome: A Review of Critical Issues, 18 J. Am. Acad. Matrimonial Law. 131, 133 (2002)

The fact that even with these criteria, courts differ in their analysis of when the syndrome exists and when it doesn’t raises serious implications for parents, of course, when considering what a court can do, if it finds that the condition exists.

As illustrated by the Canadian Court this week, trial courts have few limits with respect to how far they can go in limiting the access of a parent which they have determined is “guilty” of parental alienation. The Canadian Court limited the mother to access only in conjunction with counseling and special therapy. But that is not the limit.

Texas courts have denied parents all access to their children — no possession, no phone calls, no letters, no Skype, no Face Time, no emails…nothing.

How long can a court keep a parent away from their child completely? For as long as the court thinks is appropriate, or until an appellate court determines that the trial court has abused its discretion.

If you are a parent that has been alienated, this may be good news. If you are a parent that is currently alienating, this case — and the others that have happened that have not made the news — should stand as a stark warning.

If you would like to discuss any of this with the attorneys at the Beal Law Firm, you can reach us at lawyers@dfwdivorce.com or by calling 817.261.4333 or 214.414.0418. Our web address is www.dfwdivorce.com.