Articles Posted in Parental Rights

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Many people ask: Can my children decide where they want to live in a divorce? There are many ways for a court to consider children’s input about where they want to live.

The first way is simply allowing children to talk to the judge. Section 153.009 of the Texas Family Code allows a parent to request that a judge interview the child in chambers to determine the child’s wishes regarding certain aspects of custody. If a child is over the age of 12, it is mandatory that the judge interview the child on the request of a parent. A judge may also interview a child under age 12. It is important to know that 12-year old children cannot actually decide where they where they want to live. They will not be providing the “final say.” Instead, the child’s wishes will just be one factor that the Court considers in addition to other important information. Another thing to keep in mind is that this process can be traumatic for children. Sitting in a judge’s chambers can be very intimidating for a child, and a child could be negatively impacted by the pressure of such a weighty decision. However, many times, a child’s input can be very important in a child custody dispute, and so there are other means to obtain the information indirectly.

Another way to get a child’s input in child custody litigation is through a Child Custody Evaluation. In Texas, the only mental health professional that may make recommendations as to possession and conservatorship for children is a child custody evaluator. The Texas Family Code provides very detailed requirements for a child custody evaluation, which includes interviews of each parent and anyone living in a house with the child, interviews of the child, and observations of the home environment and each parent’s interactions with the child. The child custody evaluator will therefore be able to talk to children about where they want to live, and will do so in conjunction with a much broader study into the children’s home environment and what will ultimately be in the best interests of the children.

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Yes, step-parents could have standing to bring a claim under Texas Family Code Section 102.003(11), often referred to as the “step-parent” statute.  Under this statute, a custody suit may be brought by “[a] person with whom the child and the child’s guardian, managing conservator, or parent have resided for at least six months ending not more than 90 days preceding the date of the filing of the petition if the child’s guardian, managing conservator, or parent is deceased at the time of the filing of the petition.”  In other words, if the biological parent who is married to the step-parent dies, then the step-parent might have standing to pursue conservatorship, possession, of and access to the child.

This statute specifically gives rights to a step-parent who has helped raise one or more children of the parent who dies so long as the children have resided with the step-parent and deceased parent for at least six months ending not more than 90 days prior to the date of the filing of the petition. In determining whether or not the step-parent has standing, the court must determine whether the child’s principal residence was with the step-parent and deceased parent.  The Court will look at the following factors when determining whether the residence was a “principal” residence of the child: (1) whether the residence is a fixed place of abode, (2) whether the residence was occupied or intended to be occupied consistently over a substantial period of time, and (3) whether the residence was permanent rather than temporary. In re Kelso, 266 S.W.3d 586, 590 (Tex.App.—Fort Worth 2008, orig. proceeding); Doncer v. Dickerson, 81 S.W.3d 349, 361 (Tex.App.—El Paso 2002, no pet.). If the court reviews these three factors and determines that the child does have a principal residence with the step-parent and that such residency existed for a period of at least six months ending not more than 90 days before the date of filing of the petition, then standing is established for that step-parent.

After standing is established, there could be an addition hurdle for the step-parent if he or she is filing an original conservatorship suit, and that hurdle is known as the “parental presumption.” On the other hand, while the Texas Family Code imposes a “parental presumption” in original suits for parents over third parties seeking conservatorship, no such presumption applies to a modification suit filed by relatives or third parties, such as step-parents, who make a request to modify conservatorship, possession, or access. See In re V.L.K., 24 S.W.3d 338 (Tex. 2000).  Therefore, depending on the type of claim that is brought, a step-parent could have a higher burden.  If the step-parent is filing an original suit – then he or she may have to overcome the “parental presumption” and prove that the surviving parent is unfit in order to have certain rights.

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womanA recent Texas appellate case involved a child custody dispute that arose between a mom and her children’s paternal grandmother after their father committed suicide in 2014. After his death, the mother asked the trial court to appoint her managing conservator of the kids. The kids’ paternal grandmother cross-petitioned for the same appointment.

Before his death, the father had been CFO for a multinational corporation. His job required him to travel outside the country often. He met the mother in Mexico and became romantically involved with her. She immigrated to the United States, gave birth to three children, and married the father. While pregnant with the fourth child, the mother took a quick trip to Mexico to get a United States visa.

The immigrant officials denied her request for a visa on the ground that she’d previously been illegally present in the country for one or more years. For that reason, she had to stay in Mexico for 14 months waiting for a visa. Her kids stayed in the country with the father.

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The right to establish primary residence of a child has generally been perceived to have an inherent control over certain aspects of the right to make educational decisions. The Texas Court of Appeals out of Austin, however, recently handed down an interesting ruling regarding the connection between these two rights, thereby changing how many will interpret the meaning behind the right to designate primary residence. Continue reading →

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mother and daughterMany people assume that emotional abuse is not as serious as physical or sexual abuse. This is not the case in parental rights and child custody matters in Texas. In the Interest of SD and GD concerned the termination of a parent-child relationship between a Texas mother and her two children. The father and mother had married in 2003 and had two children. The father divorced the mother in 2010. Shortly thereafter, the mother accused the father of physically and sexually abusing one of the kids and physically abusing the other. She made several allegations of abuse that caused Child Protective Services to investigate the father. Each time, they found there was no abuse.

Since she’d made multiple unfounded allegations of abuse, CPS investigated her for emotional abuse of one of the children, S.D. They determined she’d coached her daughter to allege abuse against the father and found the mother had been emotionally abusive.

The court granted a divorce but appointed both parents as joint managing conservators. Although it found there was evidence the mother had a history of emotional abuse, it determined she should have a modified possession order. The mother was supposed to see a therapist who specialized in anger management and false memory syndrome. She had to give the father a written verification she was seeing the therapist in order to have certain times of unsupervised possession. The modified possession order further provided that as the mother completed additional therapy, she’d have more unsupervised possession. She was also supposed to pay child support, although this was delayed so that the mother could complete the therapy.

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cupIn re Interest of MAS concerned the troubling issue of a father who’d been convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child. During the divorce, the mother asked the court to terminate the father’s parental rights to their two small children. The trial court held a hearing and then terminated the father’s parental rights under Ground L of Texas Family Code section 161.001(b)(1).

The father appealed, admitting he’d been convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a minor but denying criminal responsibility for serious injury or death to a child. The appellate court explained that in order to terminate parental rights, there had to be clear and convincing evidence not only that termination was in the child’s best interest but also that the parent had fulfilled a statutory ground for termination. Clear and convincing evidence is proof that results in a firm belief about the truth of the allegations.

Under Ground L, a statutory ground for termination is a conviction for being criminally responsible for a child’s death or serious injury, including aggravated sexual assault. The appellate court explained that the mother had submitted evidence showing that the father had been put on deferred adjudication community supervision for aggravated sexual assault of a child under 14, the State moved to revoke his community supervision based on a positive test for marijuana three different times, and there was a judgment showing the father’s sentence to six years for sexually assaulting a child who was 12 or 13.

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motherIn Davenport v. Davenport, a mother and a father each appealed from a trial court’s order related to their counter-petitions to modify the parent-child relationship. The couple was divorced in 2005, one year after their daughter was born. Ten years later, the mother filed a first amended petition to modify the parent-child relationship, hoping to modify a prior modification order rendered in 2012.

In the prior order, she and the father were appointed joint managing conservators of the daughter, but the court didn’t grant either the exclusive right to designate her residence. The order also granted both parents independent rights to make decisions about the daughter’s medical and psychological care and education as long as each first conferred with the other. Neither had to pay child support, although the father had to provide the daughter with health insurance. The parents were granted weeklong periods of possession during the school year and alternating two-week periods of possession during summers.

The mother asked to be appointed a sole managing conservator of the daughter or a primary joint managing conservator with the exclusive right to designate a primary residence, to make legal and educational decisions, and to consent to health care treatments for the daughter. She asked that the father have access through a standard possession order and that he pay monthly child support. The father counter-petitioned to have the rights that the mother wanted.

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grandparentsThere is a strong presumption that a child’s best interest is served when a natural parent is awarded custody in Texas. This presumption puts a heavy burden on someone who is not a parent who wants conservatorship of a child. The non-parent will have to prove to the court that appointing a parent as managing conservator would harm the child’s physical or emotional wellbeing.

Under Texas Family Code §102.003, there are 14 different categories to which someone may belong in order to bring a SAPCR (Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship). A child or parent has the right to file a case. Moreover, so do certain other people who care for a child for a minimum of six months, as long as the six-month period ends less than 90 days before the date they file a petition.

In Re HF is a recent Texas appellate proceeding involving a grandmother’s plea in intervention in a lawsuit that affected the parent-child relationship. The case arose when the Attorney General brought a SAPCR proceeding to establish conservatorship over a mother and father’s child. The judge signed an agreed order, and the father appealed it. On the same day, the child’s grandmother petitioned to intervene in the SAPCR proceeding.

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mother and childIn the Interest of NFM is a recent Texas appellate case involving a lawsuit altering the parent-child relationship. The case arose when NFM was born in 2009. The mother and father were teens and lived with the father’s family during the mother’s pregnancy. After the baby was born, they moved out and lived together for a few months before breaking up. They created an informal agreement as to the child’s custody, rather than seeking the help of the court or getting a paternity order.

The mother later had a child with someone else. CPS became involved with the family, due to family violence, and the mother separated from that person, who completed a battering intervention and prevention program. The mother was later admitted to the hospital after ingesting up to 14 pills. A CPS caseworker concluded that the mother had tried to commit suicide. However, her doctor didn’t recommend that she get psychiatric treatment but only that she not mix liquor and pills.

The mother signed a CPS child safety and evaluation plan. This provided that both children would stay with the father, and the mother would have supervised visits. The mother complied with all of the orders. The father filed an action asking the court for sole managing conservatorship of the child. He asked that the mother’s visits be supervised.

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lifting childIn Philips v. Filla, a couple married in 2004 and divorced in 2007. They had one child. When they made their initial custody arrangement during the divorce proceedings, the mother had the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence. In 2010, however, they agreed to modify the divorce terms and agreed that the father would have the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence.

In 2010, the mother told Child Protective Services that the father was abusing the child. While an investigation was pending, the court rendered the modified order according to the settlement agreement, giving the father the exclusive right to designate the child’s primary residence. CPS ruled out the mother’s allegations that the father had abused the child and also expressed that it had a reason to believe the mother was emotionally abusive by possibly coaching the child to make abuse allegations against the father and putting the child through many intrusive medical exams connected to the allegations.

The father petitioned to modify the earlier order and asked for temporary and permanent orders that the mother have only supervised visitation with the child. The wife counter-petitioned to modify the order, again alleging the father’s abuse and asking she be awarded the right to designate a primary residence for the child. The trial court ordered that her visitation with the child be supervised and ordered the mother to begin therapy and undergo a psychological evaluation.

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