I Just Moved to Texas, Where Do I File My Child Custody SUit?

You probably must file in the state you just moved from.  Suits involving a child custody determination, or possession, visitation and access, fall under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”).  Almost all states have made it law, and in Texas, the UCCJEA is embodied in Chapter 152 of the Texas Family Code.

For initial child custody determinations, there are four options:

  1. The state is the home state of the child, meaning the child lived in the state for six months preceding the case, or the state WAS the home state of the child within six months before the case is filed and a parent or person acting as a parent still lives in the state.  Tex. Fam. Code 152.201(a)(1).
  2. No other state is the home state of the child or a court in the home state has declined to exercise jurisdiction (power) because another state is a more appropriate place because it is a) more convenient or b) a parent acted in bad faith or unjustifiably to make a certain state the home state of the child.  The child and at least one parent or person acting as a parent must have a substantial connection to the state in which the case will be filed or substantial evidence is available in that state.  Tex. Fam. Code 152.201(a)(2).
  3. All states that could exercise jurisdiction on the two grounds above have declined to do so because another state is the better forum because it is more convenient or because of bad conduct of a parent.  Tex. Fam. Code 152.201(a)(3).
  4. No court in another state would have jurisdiction under any of the three above grounds. Tex. Fam. Code 152.201(a)(4).

There is a basis for a court in Texas to make emergency orders, governed by Tex. Fam. Code 152.204, but speak with an attorney if it is going to come to that.  These interstate cases are not easy, and a lot of time and money can be wasted if you accidentally file in the wrong state.

Who Claims the Children as Dependents for Tax Purposes?

About this time of year, separated parents sometimes ask us who can claim the children on their taxes.  Many parents simply agree that the parent that would get the most benefit can claim the children.  Other parents have provisions in their orders directing the parties to claim or not to claim the children on their taxes.  But what about when there is no agreement?

The position the IRS takes is that the person having the children more than half the year can claim the children.  IRS Publication 504.

This means that the custodial parent, or the parent the children live with primarily, can claim the exemption.

So what happens if your orders say that one parent gets to claim the children and the other parent files first, claiming the children?  Realistically, the parent that should have been able to claim the children is going to have a hard time.  They will need to work with the IRS, the other party, and possibly an attorney well-versed in tax law to correct the issue.  The parent could also file an enforcement action or sue for the lost benefit.  The easiest way to avoid the issue?  Speak with the other parent, or make sure you file first.

What is a social study?

When parents can’t agree on who the kids will live with the Court will normally order a social study be conducted. This allows for a non-party, a trained professional, to look at the situation, the concerns of each party, and make a recommendation to the Court.  That recommendation is the social study.

This expert will interview each party as well as watch the interactions between the parties and the kids. They will normally also interview other children or adults that are living in the residences of the parties (should there be any) and do a home visit of each parties home to make sure it is appropriate / safe for the children.

Once the expert is done, they draft the social study. In some jurisdictions, only the attorneys and the judge will see the result.  This is because there have been times when parties have not liked the results of the social study and either share them with the children or even take out their frustrations on the children.

If you are going through a social study, be honest, participate fully, and make sure you comply fully with any requests. Talk with your attorney if you have questions.

A quick overview of the process in Dallas County can be found here.

New Alcohol Testing Tool – Soberlink

First, I found out about this from another attorney, not the manufacturer, so this is no advertisement.  Nor is it meant to be – I have no experience with this, I just looked it up and Soberlink seems like a useful tool.

Check it out for yourself, the website is http://www.soberlink.net/

You can have random alcohol testing, or scheduled.  There will be a monthly fee, and a deposit for the equipment, which may keep this out of the hands of everyone, but I think the other upsides are great:

- takes note of location through GPS technology

- take a photo of the person giving the breath test

- sends this to email accounts of attorney’s and/or the parties

- pocket-sized

For those concerned about alcohol abuse, or accused of addiction, this is a useful remedy.

Jurisdiction Issues in the International Child Custody Context

When we get calls about international child custody cases, our first question is normally, “Is an order already in place.”  If the answer to the first is no, the second question is, “Where has the child lived the past six months.”

The reason for the two questions is to determine whether we can bring a child custody suit in the state of Texas.  Texas, along with the rest of the United States (except MA as of July 2011), has enacted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (“UCCJEA”).  You can find the Wikipedia article, with a decent explanation, here.  The UCCJEA is found in chapter 152 of the Texas Family Code.  That chapter can be found here.

Even if an order is already in place, we need to review that order to see if it will fit the criteria of a ‘child custody determination.’  It only fits that criteria if it provides for legal custody, physical custody, or visitation with respect to a child.  Tex. Fam. Code 152.102(3).

These cases can be very technical, fact-specific, and you need to pay close attention to the timeline of the child’s life.  Not presenting your case effectively the first time, especially when another Court in another country is already involved, can mean that you get a ruling against you, which you then have to appeal.

An Example:

An interesting recent case is In the Interest of A.S.C.H, 05-11-01185-CV, which you can view here.   Mom was a British citizen, Dad was an American citizen.  The child was born in Texas in November of 2008, and although the child traveled to England a couple of times, the child’s final travel to England occurred in September of 2009.  For some reason, Dad was turned back at that time and returned to Texas, while Mom and child stayed in England.  Dad initiated a case first through the Hague Convention based on child abduction (very interesting in itself) and then a typical child custody case in Texas.  The child abduction case was resolved in Mom’s favor, but there were no findings as to legal custody, physical custody, or visitation, meaning that it was NOT a ‘child custody determination.’  After that resolution, Mom attacked the jurisdiction of the Texas court in the child custody suit, relying on a line in the foreign order that the child’s habitual residence was found to be England as of June 2009.  To make a long story short (you can read the opinion, which does an excellent job of explaining the law behind the decision), Dad was allowed to bring the suit in Texas since there was no other child custody order and there was a fact issue as to the home state of the child.

Cap on Child Support is Going Up

Whether you are an attorney, a parent receiving child support, or a parent paying child support, you want to know that starting September 1, 2013, it is very likely that the cap on net monthly income used to calculate child support will rise from $7,500.00 to $8,550.00.

That means for one child, an obligor who ‘caps out’  would see his child support rise from $1,500.00 to $1,710.00 per month.  That is a difference of $210.00 per month, $2,520.00 per year, and if a child was just born, an increase over the 18 years (at least) of child support owed of $45,360.00.

For obligors, it might be time to do a little additional financial planning – especially since that cap will likely rise again during the course of that child’s life.

For obligee’s, consider contacting the obligor and seeing if they would agree to forgo litigation and agree to the increase with an Agreed Order.  That saves you both the time and money of going to Court.

HEALTH REIMBURSEMENT: DON’T FORGET TO SUBMIT YOUR RECEIPTS!

This is a guest post from Attorney Kevin Segler, also at Holmes, Diggs & Eames.  Thank you, Kevin, for the article!

THE ISSUE:

If the party who incurs an unreimbursed health care expense for a child fails to submit the bill/receipt to the other party for reimbursement within the time period specified in the order, is the other party still required to reimburse for those health care expenses for which they received untimely notice?

HYPOTHETICAL SCENARIO:

Mother and Father have one child and their Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship contains standard language regarding payment of unreimbursed health care expenses. The Order provides that “each party must pay 50 percent of the unreimbursed health care expenses. The party who incurs a health care expense on behalf of a child must submit to the other party all forms, receipts, bills, statements, and explanations of benefits reflecting the uninsured portion of the health care expenses within thirty (30) days after he or she receives them.”

The child is 15 at the time of the order. Five years later, Mother sends Father various bills and receipts for the child’s health care expenses she incurred when the child was 16. Father does not pay. A year after sending Father the bills, Mother files a Motion for Enforcement for a cumulative money judgment based on Father’s nonpayment of his 50% of the unreimbursed health care expenses for the child. Is Father still obligated to pay his 50% even though Mother did not submit the bills and receipts to him within 30 days after she received them?

Short Answer: It seems to be in the discretion of the trial court judge whether Father is obligated to pay.

THE STATUTE:

The Texas Family Code §154.183(c)(1)-(2) states:

(c) As additional child support, the court shall allocate between the parties, according to their circumstances:

  1. The reasonable and necessary health care expenses, including vision and dental expenses, of the child that are not reimbursed by health insurance or are not otherwise covered by the amount of cash medical support ordered under Section 154.182(b)(3); and

  2. Amounts paid by either party as deductibles or copayments in obtaining health care services for the child covered under a health insurance policy.”

Remember, obligations under this section are considered child support and are treated the same as periodic child support payments in that the penalties and limitations periods are the same for enforcement purposes.

THE CASE LAW:

While there are no Texas Supreme Court opinions on this issue, several appellate courts have addressed the topic.

In re A.C.B., 302 S.W.3d 560 (Tex.App.—Amarillo 2009, no pet.)

In 2009, the Amarillo Court of Appeals upheld a trial court ruling that allowed reimbursement for bills despite one party missing the deadline to submit receipts. The order in A.C.B. gave the paying party a ten-day window to provide bills/receipts to the other party. Mother testified that she provided one bill to father within the ten-day window required by the order but there were several bills that were not presented by the deadline.

Even though mother failed to provide the majority of the bills and receipts to father within the ten-day notice period provided in the order, the appellate court held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in awarding mother 50 percent of unreimbursed medical expenses. The court reasoned that even if mother failed to provide copies of the medical bills within the ten-day deadline established by the modification order, each parent is obligated to support his or her child during the child’s minority and is liable to any other person, including the other parent, who provides necessities for that child.

In re L.L., 341 S.W.3d 22 (Tex.App.—San Antonio 2010, no pet.)

However, one year later the San Antonio Court of Appeals reached an opposite result. When the father in L.L. submitted receipts for his child’s oral surgery two months after the deadline specified in the final order, the appellate court determined the trial court’s denial of father’s request for reimbursement for the surgery was not an abuse of discretion because father failed to provide timely notice of the expense as required by the decree.

Father argued that mother was still responsible for reimbursement because she had a duty to support the children regardless of whether he provided notice pursuant to the decree, relying on In re A.C.B. (discussed above). The L.L. court disagreed, noting that because the trial court chose to enforce the notice requirement contained in the decree, the trial court never acted in an arbitrary manner or failed to follow guiding principles.

Herzfeld v. Herzfeld, 05-10-01298-CV, 2012 WL 6061772 (Tex. App.—Dallas Dec. 6, 2012, no. pet. h.) (NOT REPORTED IN S.W.3d (2012))

The Herzfeld court agreed with the San Antonio Court of Appeals in holding a trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying mother’s request for medical expense reimbursement. While there was evidence from mother that the children saw a psychologist, there was no evidence as to the number of appointments nor was there any definitive testimony regarding the amount owed to the doctor.

Mother testified from memory that both of the children saw a psychologist an average of twice a month, presumably every month from the time of the separation until they turned eighteen. She sought $200 per month pre-divorce and $100 a month post-divorce.

However, there was no evidence Wife timely notified Husband of the payments made and no evidence of the dates on which they were made. Furthermore, the trial court found evidence as to an actual amount was “speculative” because there were no records of visits by date or by child. Given the absence of any other proof to corroborate Wife’s testimony regarding the number of children’s visits, when they occurred, or the cost of each visit, the court upheld the trial court’s decision in concluding the amount was speculative.

CONCLUSION

The classic (and often frustrating) response to many legal questions is “it depends.” It appears that answer also applies here. The one consistency in all three of the above cases is each appellate court’s reluctance to overturn the lower court’s ruling. The trial court’s decision hinges on accepting the “each parent is obligated to support his or her child” argument versus the “strict adherence to the deadline” stance. Just to be on the safe side, one should always submit any health care bills or receipts to the other parent before the deadline passes.

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