Houston Child Custody & Visitation Attorneys
Child custody is probably the most important issue we deal with at Conner & Lindamood. For our clients going through a divorce, it can sometimes be hard to clearly prioritize the needs of the children in the midst of the pain and anger they are feeling.
Our respected Houston child custody attorneys take very seriously their duty to protect the rights and interests of children caught in the middle of a divorce. Our experience gives us the ability to handle the most complicated cases, such as those involving:
- International custody and visitation issues
- Children with special health care or educational needs
- Allegations of family violence or drug or alcohol abuse
- Divisive religious issues
- Parental alienation
- Split custody situations
- Relocation and move-away cases
Determining Child Custody in Texas
In matters of child custody, the Family Code of Texas provides for a basic framework, defining the rights and duties of a parent as well as times of possession, known as a Standard Possession Order (SPO). This order defines the legal rights and responsibilities of each parent. The SPO includes court-ordered determinations of the following issues:
- Where the child lives (right of domicile)
- Where the child goes to school (education rights)
- Which parent is responsible for making medical decisions
A SPO generally divides the child’s time roughly in half between both parents and establishes guidelines for parental access or visitation. Texas courts prefer to establish joint custody arrangements with one parent awarded primary physical custody and the other parent often order to pay child support.
How does a court decide which parent will get custody of a child?
When the parents cannot agree on a custody arrangement, the court will make the decision for them. When determining the child’s best interests, the court may consider may factors, including
- The child’s age
- The child’s gender
- The child’s physical and mental health
- The parents’ physical and mental health
- The parents’ lifestyles
- Any history of abuse
- The emotional bonds between the parent and the child
- The parent’s ability to give the child guidance
- The parent’s ability to provide the basic necessities, such as food, shelter, clothing and medical care
- The child’s routines, including home, school, community and religious
- The willingness of the parent to encourage a healthy, on-going relationship between the child and the other parent
- If the child is above a certain age, the child’s preference
- Who has been the child’s primary caretaker?
Developing a Parenting Plan
As part of the process of obtaining an order, parents can work together to develop a Parenting Plan, which establishes the logistical components of child care following divorce. The plan will include the time spent with each parent and the parenting responsibilities. If the parents do not agree to a parenting plan, then the court will make its own determinations regarding the child and parental responsibilities.
Because no two families are alike, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to establishing a parent plan. Accordingly, parents can take legal steps to create a parenting plan that meets their needs and the needs of their children.
In Texas, unmarried parents have the same legal obligations to support their children as married or divorced parents do, even if an unmarried parent has never lived with the child. If the unmarried couple separates, they will need to go through the legal process of obtaining a court-approved custody arrangement. In some cases, it may be necessary to establish paternity prior to determining a custody arrangement.
Modification of Child Custody and Visitation Orders
A Texas family court will modify custody and visitation orders if it is convinced that circumstances have changed such that the custody or visitation order is no longer fair or workable for the parties. Such changed circumstances warranting a modification can include, but are not limited to:
- The visitation schedule has become difficult for the child or one or more parents.
- The custodial parent has moved out or plans to move out of the state of Texas without giving due notice, placing an undue burden on the parent seeking visitation (see relocation and move-away cases).
- The child, if he or she is 12 years or older, prefers a new custody arrangement and wishes to file an affidavit stating his or her preference regarding the parent with whom he or she wishes to live.
Grandparent Visitation Rights
Texas, unlike some other states, does not provide a specific legal right to grandparents to sue for visitation. Nevertheless, grandparents can petition a judge to grant them visitation rights, and in some circumstances a judge will enter a visitation order detailing a grandparent’s rights and obligations; such an order will have the full force of law.
By their very nature, these cases most often arise in dysfunctional family situations where there is tension between at least one parent and a grandparent. It can take a skilled attorney to unravel all the competing interests and to address a grandparent’s rights in terms of what is best for the child’s well-being, which is the court’s primary focus. Our experienced family law attorneys have the ability to present a compelling argument for why a judge should order that you be granted visitation rights with your grandchild.
What Factors May the Court Consider When Awarding Custody?
Does custody always go to just one parent?
Custody does not have to go to one parent (sole or primary custody); joint/shared/split custody may be an option as well. There are two types of joint custody. If parents have joint legal custody, they each have equal rights to make major decisions for their child/children and must agree on these decisions. Some examples of major decisions are schooling, religion, healthcare, discipline, bedtime, age of driving and other activities. If parents have joint physical custody, the time each child spends with the parent is split equally. It is also possible for parents to have joint legal custody and not joint physical custody. Then the child may spend less time with one parent, such as weekends, holidays or other specified time periods. Different jurisdictions have statutes regarding joint or split custody with their own requirements. However, commonly, the courts look at the fitness of each parent, their ability to cooperate with each other, the child’s relationship with each parent and each parent’s desire to be involved in the child’s life.
Are courts more likely to award custody to mothers than fathers?
Historically, the court presumed the mother to be the best parent to award custody of the child. Today, that is not the case. Courts must consider the best interests of the child when determining custody. The best interests of the child have nothing to do with a parent’s gender. The courts look at criteria such as the wishes of the child and the parents, the relationship of the child to the parents, siblings and any other extended family, the location of the parent (considering adjustment to school, church, etc.), the health of the child and/or parents, the financial situation of each parent and which parent has been the primary caretaker of the child thus far.
Even though there is no legal presumption in favor of the mother, it is important to note that courts in some jurisdictions may still give preference to the mother in custody disputes where the child is an infant, under the age of six or a female child of mature years. However, if this is the practice, courts still consider who has been the primary caregiver, the mental and physical health of the parent, the financial situation of the parent and other similar criteria to the “best interests of the child.”
Can the sexual orientation of the parent/parents affect who gets custody of the child?
There is no difference between the parenting skills of homosexual, bisexual or transgender parents and heterosexual parents. Of course there are many misconceptions and falsehoods about homosexual and lesbian parents, a homosexual parent is not considered unfit (simply due to their sexual orientation) as a matter of law. The court considers the best interests of the child when determining custody. The sexual orientation of one or both parents is only considered a factor if there is evidence that his or her same-sex relationship has harmed the child. Absent evidence of harm, sexual orientation does not make a parent unfit and should not affect the courts decision regarding which parent receives custody of the child.
Contact a Houston Child Custody & Visitation Attorney
For a consultation regarding your Houston child custody or visitation matter, contact one of our Houston child custody and visitation attorneys at 713-489-2551 in Houston or 281-942-6475 for our office in League City(by appointment only). Conner & Lindamood serves clients throughout Harris, Houston and Galveston counties in southeast Texas.