Q. Have the family district courts stopped hearing hearings and trials?
A. No. Most county and district courts are still holding virtual hearings via Zoom for hearings and half-day bench trials. Jury trials are suspended until at least June 1, 2020 (as of 4/22/2020). They cannot hear cases involving asking the court to find a defendant in contempt of court (i.e. for not paying child support) that could require the defendant to be jailed until they are back to hearing cases in person.
Q. Can I still open or file a divorce or custody lawsuit?
A. Yes. In response to the COVID-19 disaster declaration for Collin County, the Collin County District Clerk's office will temporarily suspend all walk-in services effective March 19, 2020 but allow e-filing online or filing pleadings or motions via postal mail.
Q. Can I still finalize a divorce if I am not able to go to court to tell the judge about the agreements my spouse and I made?
A. Yes. Most district family courts are accepting an affidavit with the information you normally would have to present to the judge in order for the judge to grant your divorce.
Q. If I already have a court order for custody, should child custody exchanges take place during a shelter-in-place order?
A. Yes. All court-ordered custody exchanges should still occur as ordered.
The Texas Supreme Court issued an order March 24, in effect until May 8, 2020,saying that for determining a person’s right to possession of and access to a child under a court-ordered possession schedule, the existing trial court order controls in all instances.
Many Texas shelter-in-place orders specifically state that traveling to exchange the children is not a violation of the orders.
Example: Dallas County issued a shelter-in-place order effective March 23, 2020. Dallas family courts provided the following joint statement about the issue. Exchanging your children is an essential activity under the Dallas shelter-in-place orders. That means you would not likely be violating the shelter-in-place order if you can show that you are exchanging a child.
Q: My child’s other parent works in a job that has a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 or they are disobeying the social distancing and stay-at-home orders. Can I deny the other parent access to my child to keep my child safe?
A: Depending on the level of threat to the child, refusing to return the child might be a valid option if you think the child is in imminent danger. If possible, talk to an attorney about your situation before taking any action.
If you do not let the kids go during their court-ordered visitation period, know that anyone who does not follow a court order takes a risk. The risk is that the other conservator might file a motion to enforce, and you could be held in contempt of court. If this happens, talk to an attorney.
If you have a serious concern for the safety of your child, you can ask the court for a Temporary Restraining Order denying access to the other parent, but the requirements to qualify for a TRO are particular, so consult an attorney to evaluate your case as to if you would qualify.
Q: What if you were under a supervised visitation order?
A: It may be that the normal location for supervised visitation is closed. It may be impossible to follow the supervised visitation order right now. If this is your situation, you should contact an attorney to get specific legal advice.
Q: I have a child support negotiation conference or a hearing set in child support court. Do I still need to go?
A: The Office of the Attorney General has temporarily closed its physical offices, but services will continue to be provided over the telephone and internet. If you had an in-office negotiation or court hearing scheduled, you can contact their office to schedule a virtual negotiation. For more information, visit the Texas Attorney General Child Support COVID-19 page or contact a private attorney.
Q: I lost my employment or a significant amount of income due to COVID-19. Do I still have to pay the court-ordered child support?
A: Yes. Your child support obligation does not automatically go away if you lose your income. You are still ordered to pay the child support until you reopen the child support lawsuit to ask the judge to lower your child support in accordance with your new lower income or loss of income.
If you are not able to open a lawsuit to reduce your child support obligation, then pay as much as you can because your child support arrearages will pile up with interest. If you don’t pay your child support, you could be at risk of being found in contempt of court later which can include jail time and fines.
Q: What should I do if I want to leave an abusive situation right now?
A: If someone in your home is violent toward you or your children you should call the police. The police can arrest the abuser and can help you obtain a magistrate’s protective order against the abuser.
There are also many organizations and shelters which provide free services to survivors of domestic violence and child abuse including temporary shelter, counseling, and safety planning. These services can help you leave an abusive relationship.
You can find these services by calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline, (800) 799-7233.
Also, you have a duty to protect your child. If you have concerns about your child’s health or safety, call the Child Abuse Hotline, 800-252-5400. For the latest information and resources for CPS cases, see the Texas Children's Commission's COVID-19 web site.
Q: My child’s other parent and I want to agree to vary from the court order to act in the best interest of the children. Is that okay?
As long as your court orders allow that the agreements of the parties supersede the orders of the court for custody, you and the other parent or conservator are free to agree to whatever possession and access and exchange methods works for your family.
If your decree does not say that, then the court orders are still in effect unless you go back to court to modify them and the judge does modify them.
Q: I think I or the child may have been exposed to or contracted COVID-19. Do I have to tell my child’s other parent?
A: If a parent, conservator, or child has been diagnosed with, or has reason to believe they or have been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, you should tell the other parent about the diagnosis or exposure. Then, you should discuss actions necessary to protect the child’s safety and welfare. If you and the other parent cannot come to an agreement, talk to an attorney for further guidance.
This information is not intended to be legal advice to anyone's particular situation. Learn more about how we can help by calling us at (469) 646-7763 and setting up a consultation!