Custody modifications in Dallas County, Tarrant County and other parts of Texas are a natural function of lives changing after a divorce or suit affecting the parent-child relationship (SAPCR). The children grow up and develop different interests and relationships. The parents find new relationships and see other changes in employment, homes, etc. Custody orders often become unworkable through these changes and it becomes necessary to return to court to modify the orders.
Custody modifications can be far more difficult than the original divorce or SAPCR for many reasons. Hiring a custody modification lawyer or other other family law attorney in Fort Worth or Dallas can be extremely important. Maybe even more important than the divorce or SAPCR that originally set out the custody orders. When a custody order is modified in Texas it generally will stay that way for at least a year. A lot can happen in the fragile parent-child relationship in a year.
I do not believe every family law situation requires hiring a divorce lawyer or other family law attorney. There are a lot of family law situations that might benefit from an attorney; but the cost-benefit analysis does not always favor hiring an attorney. Custody modifications are usually not one of those times.
How people end up in custody modifications in Fort Worth or Dallas, Texas without a lawyer
Often in Dallas County and Tarrant County I see people go into custody modifications without an attorney only to regret it down the road. There are reasonable explanations why this happens. Sometimes a parent is served and does not have the financial resources to hire a lawyer right away. In many situations the parent misunderstands the legal process and thinks he or she will just have an opportunity to tell his or her story to the judge and the judge will make a decision. In either situation the parent without an attorney is at considerable disadvantage. The modification suit follows the same civil procedure rules as other lawsuits; a family law attorney knows how to use those rules to his or her client’s advantage. We also know the judges and their preferences.
How not hiring a lawyer up front can set you back
When parents become involved in a modification suit without a lawyer they usually think the family court will help them along in the lawsuit or handicap the other side who has an attorney. This is not true. Often, one of two scenarios actually occurs, sometimes with devastating consequences.
- The parent is served with citation and fails to file anything. If sued and you fail to file an answer the party who filed suit can, after the appropriate deadline, ask the court to sign a default judgment. The default judgment is based on the unopposed evidence of the party filing suit. In a custody modification that evidence is usually the testimony of the parent who filed suit. The family court judge will usually grant whatever that parent asks for as long as the testimony reasonably supports it. The default judgment is a final order from the court and equally as enforceable as if there had been a trial. A default judgment can be overturned but even going down this path is expensive and puts the parent who was defaulted against several steps behind.
- The parent is also served with a notice of a temporary orders hearing and appears without an attorney. Attorneys often request temporary orders when filing a modification suit to make temporary adjustments to the existing custody order while the lawsuit pends. To grant temporary orders (other than emergency ex parte temporary orders), the court must hold a hearing (if the parties do not agree) which means a hearing notice must go out to both sides. If one parent shows up without a lawyer then there is a good likelihood that parent is unprepared to conduct an evidentiary hearing and likely loses. In a high percentage of cases whatever happens in the temporary orders will make it into the final orders. So once again the parent without a lawyer starts far, far behind.
Why the custody modification remains dangerous without a lawyer in Texas
Once you’re in the thick of the modification suit it doesn’t get any easier. The family court is still not going to help you along or handicap the other side. The procedural rules can create a very easy win for an attorney facing off against a pro se party (a party without an attorney). You may have stumbled forward in the divorce or SAPCR, even against an attorney, into results that were not too bad. However, the modification is a different animal in two important ways.
Factual issues in modification suits over divorces in Texas
First, the facts are typically very different in the modification. When most people go through a divorce in Dallas or Tarrant County, they often have recently lived together and parented together. Their work schedules and personal lives usually organized around sharing responsibilities for child care and support. Over time each parent develops a separate life which may be at odds with the other parent’s life. The children are older and have different schedules, which can also play a role. One or both parents may have remarried and may have other kids in their lives that also need time and attention. At a minimum, there are more facts to consider on each side when crafting new custody orders.
A Texas divorce lawyer will know how to present the strongest factual position for his or her client and use rules of evidence to exclude yours. The attorney will be more familiar with what facts are most persuasive with the judges. You will be at a significant disadvantage trying to present a case that does not present the right set of facts that apply to the law for custody modifications.
Different legal standards apply in a custody modification suit in Texas
In a divorce or initial SAPCR suit the Texas Family Code requires a judge to apply several legal presumptions. These presumptions make it easier for the judge to establish custody and support orders without having to force the parties into expensive, long term litigation. A party can overcome the presumptions; but doing so requires a strong showing of facts that may not be there. In a modification those presumptions mostly go away. The very fact that the parties have returned to court to modify custody orders points out that the presumptions are not correct and a closer look at the facts is necessary. For this reason a greater span of law and procedural rules apply to the modification. The party equipped with an attorney has a far greater advantage in this arena.
Most often the party with an attorney gets the better result than the party that appears without a lawyer. The modification suit is not like a trip to one of the TV court shows. The judge isn’t going to give each side open opportunities to tell their side of the story. Litigation has complicated legal and procedural rules. The consequence of not protecting your interests in a modification suit in Texas is that your relationship with your kids may be permanently harmed. You may end up paying child support or losing receipt of child support. That can have significant financial consequences for you and your kids. You may lose time with your kids.
Hire a custody modification lawyer in Texas from the start
If you believe a custody modification is necessary or you were served with a modification suit then you should contact a family law attorney in Fort Worth or Dallas right away. The longer you take to hire an attorney the more the other side can weaken your position. Often the most important activity in a modification suit in Dallas or Fort Worth courts happens in the first weeks. A lawyer may not be able to finalize the modification in that short of a time; but that lawyer may be able to set enough acts into motion that the other parent starts far behind. Don’t let that be you.