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10 Things to Know About Custody and Divorce in Harris County, Texas

If you’ve read any of my prior blog posts, you will notice that I try to provide you with a lot of useful information. Such information is meant to guide you throughout the legal process and to give you confidence that you understand the legal dynamics of your case. Here, I wanted to provide you with a short and sweet list of things that you should know if you have acase related to custody or divorce in Harris County (Houston), Texas. Harris County is the most populous county in Texas and is a county with its own rules and practices. If you have a case in this county, you should be armed with the following information:

You have to Take (and successfully complete) a Parenting Course.

Harris County requires that each parent take a co-parenting course in divorces with suits affecting the parent-child relationship or motions to modify custody filed on or after May 1, 1997. This is typically a 4-hour course and can be completed in-person or online. This must be completed before the parties appear in Court for Final Orders. Once you successfully complete the course, you will receive a certificate. This certificate must be filed with the Court before there can be any testimony on final orders. It usually cost about $60-100 for the course. Even though the idea of taking a course may not seem appealing to some, clients tend to tell me that they learned a lot from the course. Below are some of the Courses that have been approved by Harris County Family courts.

Online Parenting Courses

In-Person Parenting Courses

  1. Children Cope                                                                      713-952-COPE (2673)
  2. Escape                                                                                   713-942-9500
  3. Children in the Middle                                                        713-468-8356
  4. Parents Apart                                                                       281-333-5866
  5. Family Education Institute                                                 713-688-9122
  6. Centro Infantil De Pelchin                                                  713-730-2335
  7. Stop the Conflict                                                                  713-520-5370
  8. Building New Beginnings (Escape Center)                      713-942-9500
  9. Family Time Crisis & Counseling Center                          281-446-2615
  10. Putting Kids First (Also Online)                                          888-777-2298 EXT. 221

You Might have to Attend Mediation, Even if you Don’t Want to.

Most courts in Harris County require that the parties attend mediation prior to having a hearing on Temporary Orders in any case where custody is at issue. This does not mean that you have to settle the case but you must be able to check the box saying that you attended mediation, even if you don’t stay the entire time. Read my blog on Mediation for more information. If you don’t attend mediation when required to do so, the Court will refuse to set a Temporary Orders hearing. You also must attend mediation again for an attempt to settle Final Orders before the Court will set your case for trial.

You have an Important Deadline to meet before you can have a hearing for Temporary Orders.

You went to mediation and it failed. Now, you must go to court to have a hearing on Temporary Orders in which child or spousal support is at issue. Before the hearing, the court requires each party to exchange the following:

  • Financial Information Statement (Harris County has their own form);
  • Copies of Income Tax Returns for the Past Two Years; and
  • The two most recent payroll stubs.

Don’t forget about this deadline because non-compliance with this rule could be grounds for sanctions by the Court.

You have another Important Deadline 10 days before trial.

If you are set for trial, you must give the other party a snapshot of the case, including your evidence and arguments. It is not like you may have seen on TV where some surprise evidence or witness gets to testify or be introduced at trial. In the real world, it is really rare (and very special circumstances) to which a Court would permit non-disclosed evidence to be admitted. With this in mind, Harris County requires that each party give the other party the following items NO LATER THAN 10 DAYS PRIOR TO TRIAL :

  • Your final Inventory (this lists all of the parties assets and liabilities and is sworn);
  • Financial Information Statement (Harris County has their own form);
  • Income Tax Returns from the last 2 years (if you filed);
  • Your Last two pay stubs, (or other proof of income);
  • Suggested findings as to Child Support (if applicable); and
  • Your Proposed Division of Property.

It is vital that this deadline is complied with because non-compliance with this rule could be grounds for sanctions by the Court.

Disclosure is Key.

Harris County requires that in every divorce case or case where child or spousal support is at issue, each party must disclose certain information to the other party (without having to wait for a discovery request):

Divorces & Annulments:

  • All documents dealing with real estate where the party claims an interest;
  • All documents dealing with pension retirement, or other employee benefit plan;
  • The most recent account statement for any employee benefit plan;
  • All Life, casualty, liability, and health insurance documents;
  • Your most recent account statement for any financial account in your name. (i.e. banks, savings & loans, brokerage accounts, credit unions, etc.)

Child & Spousal Support is at Issue:

  • All policies, statements, and description of benefits which reflect any and all medical and health insurance coverage that is or would be available for the child or the spouse;
  • Unless the information has previously been exchanged in connection with a temporary hearing (Rule 4.1), a Financial Information Statement for the party, together with that party’s previous two years income tax returns and two most recent payroll check stubs, or, if no payroll check stubs are available, the party’s latest Form MT-2.

Visit the Harris County Local Rules for more information.

Timing is Everything.

If you have a case in Harris County, you always want to be sure to leave your previous destination one hour (or more) before your scheduled hearing. This way, your attorney will also have time to meet with you prior to the hearing if he/she needs to. Since you want to be outside of the courtroom (waiting) at least 30 minutes prior to the hearing, you should plan to spend 15-20 minutes parking, walking to the courthouse from your vehicle, going through security, and even waiting on an elevator. BE ON TIME FOR YOUR HEARING.

Dress Professionally.

Harris County has a dress code. You do not have to dress up as much as your lawyer might, but dress like you are going to a job interview for an office position. This means no shorts, sunglasses, hats, etc. are allowed.

“Children are dear, but not in Here.”

Harris County has a strict “no kids in the courtroom” policy. This means that you have to find a babysitter if you have young children on the day of the hearing. Children are not allowed in the courtroom at any time. If a judge ever wants to speak with the child, they will do so in their chambers.

Harris County Judges can Hear testimony from Children.

Judges have the authority, in suits involving custody issues or support, to listen to the child’s testimony. This is always scheduled ahead of time and has to be specifically approved by the Court. The testimony will take place in-private, with the judge. No parties may be present while the child is testifying (usually not the lawyers either). Judges can take the opinions of children at least 12 years old into consideration when awarding custody.

The Court may appoint an Amicus Attorney or Ad Litem.

In suits involving custody or support of children, the Court may appoint an Amicus or Ad Litem. An Amicus or Ad Litem is a representative or attorney that is just for the child(ren). It is a third party who only has the child(ren)’s best interests in mind. If the Court appoints an Amicus or Ad Litem, the parties will be responsible to pay their fees (which are usually substantially less than what you will pay your own attorney). This can get costly even if the parties are equally splitting the fees for the Amicus or Ad Litem because in essence, each party will be paying for two attorneys each. The Amicus or Ad Litem will report to the Judge and each party’s attorneys in reference to their findings, interactions with the parents and children, etc. The Court takes the opinion of the Amicus or Ad Litem very seriously. Keep that in mind.

The Court Won’t Set you for Trial on these weeks :

  • March – The week of the 2nd Administrative Judicial Region Conference;
  • June – The week of the State Bar Convention;
  • August – The week of the State Bar of Texas Advanced Family Law Course
  • September – The week of the Conference of the Judicial Section; and
  • The last two weeks in December.

If you’d like for trial to get set on one of these weeks, you would need consent from all parties and the Court.

 

 

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