You’ve been to court and you have your “custody order.” You read it and right from the start you are confused. It’s not even actually called a custody order. It’s often entitled an Order in Suit Affecting the Parent Child Relationship, or it is incorporated into your novel-like final divorce decree.
This is just where the confusion begins. You read through the document, often at least 20 pages long, and you see terms you don’t understand and a level of detail you had not anticipated. Even provisions you expected to be simple, like the exchange spot of the child or child support, are frustratingly detailed and complex. You can’t understand how your agreement or the judge’s ruling, seemingly straightforward and clear, has become a jumbled mess of legalese.
Well, let’s just say you are not alone. Many Texans, even those that had attorneys, struggle to understand their custody orders. There are many reasons why custody orders are long and difficult to understand. The simple answer is twofold:
(1) custody orders, to have any bite, must address a huge number of potential scenarios and conflicts that arise when parents are split;
(2) custody orders must, according to state law, contain many convoluted provisions that can muddy the waters.
Having a long and detailed custody order is not a bad thing, though. I find that, once clients understand an order, they often have a feeling of great security and peace. They know that visitation, health insurance, child support, and so on, are set out in a legally enforceable document. They know that, though it’s just paper, this paper is law…the law that governs their relationship with their kids and the other parent. It is law that they can enforce; judges can even imprison offenders (although this is relatively rare).
If you have not had an attorney translate and explain your order, don’t worry. Attorneys, like me, will be happy to explain your custody order, even if that’s all you want us to do. Here are some of the common provisions that trip up parents:
Near the beginning of your order, you see the term “conservatorship.” You wonder what that means and why, on earth, that section is so long and detailed. The conservatorship section is essentially how the parents’ rights and duties are divvied up. It’s not specifically about possession (visitation). That often comes later, in its own section. Don’t overthink conservatorship. It’s probably not telling you things you didn’t know.
You knew parents, even without a court order, could consent to medical procedures, make education decisions, have a duty to support their children, can get information from professionals, etc. The conservatorship section explains which of these rights and duties you have versus the other parent. Many times, parents have almost all the same rights and duties, but there are usually a few rights and duties that just one parent has:
a. Primary Residence and Geographical Restriction: The parent with more possession typically designates the primary residence of the child. The primary parent is also often subject to a geographical restriction. If your order says the primary residence must be “within” a certain area, this is a geographical restriction. These restrictions are hugely important. So closely read them.
b. Designating the School: It makes sense for one parent to designate the school. Your order may not address this issue, but it’s important to look for this provision.
2. Possession Order:
Many people read this section, but few follow their possession order exactly, either because it’s too complex to understand or too complex to remember. My main tip here is to read it, and read it again, and again and again. The possession section can be very complex, but you are on the hook if you violate it. And you may not truly realize how much visitation it gives you.
a. Weekends: Under the standard possession order, which many parties agree to and many judges order, the non-primary parent gets the 1st, 3rd and 5th Fridays from when school dismisses until school resumes Monday. There is also some Thursday visitation during the school year. Many parents count the weekends of the month and not the Fridays.
You need to count the Fridays to determine visitation. For instance, in April of 2021, the last full weekend started April 23, a Friday. But the last day of the month, a Friday, is the fifth Friday. So, the non-primary would get the last day of the month, the 5th Friday, until the following Monday, May 3rd. The non-primary would also get the next weekend, beginning May 7th, which is the 1st Friday.
b. Holiday and Summer: Most possession orders address holiday and summer visitation, including Christmas, Thanksgiving, Spring Break, Mother and Father’s Days, the children’s birthday, and even long weekends caused by a holiday on Friday or Monday. Often, the most complex portion of the possession section is the summer visitation. Again, read it repeatedly until you understand it. There are often deadlines by which you have to notify the other parent of when you want to exercise your summer visitation. If you miss it, you could miss some visitation, or have to live with visitation at times you didn’t want.
c. Pick-up and Drop-off of the child: The pick-up and drop-off provision is an important but overlooked aspect of orders. Sometimes this provision is couched in terms like “surrender” or “return,” so read carefully. Many parents alternate travel duties. For instance, the mother drops off at the father’s place and then father drops off at mother’s place. It’s also common for the parties to exchange at a mid-way point. Either way, unless the parents agree otherwise, you do need to exchange at the location and at the time indicated.
3. Health Insurance:
There is no simple way to explain the health insurance provisions. Typically, one party is ordered to provide the insurance for the children. Also typically, but not always, the other party is required to reimburse the other party for the children’s health insurance premiums.
4. Medical Costs:
Most orders state that the parties are to equally split uninsured/uncovered medical costs. The parent that pays the bill needs to send the receipt/EOB to the other parent, and that parent must then pay half the bill. There are time limits for sending the receipt and the payment.
TLC Law, PLLC is here to assist you with all your family law needs. Give us a call at 903-871-1714 to dive further into your case!