Three overfilled elevators passed before them before they were able to board one, just barely squeezing their bodies in enough so the doors would close. Their attorney guided them off the elevator on the family law floor and ushered them past the chaos of the hallway. There were adults, babies and children clustered everywhere and it seemed an impossibility that anyone court could process this many people in a single day.
The court in question was the Bexar County courthouse in San Antonio. The couple in question was Peter and his wife Ashley who had just flown in from Los Angeles the previous day to seek joint custody of Jessica, a toddler whom Peter had fathered with an ex-girlfriend in San Antonio three years prior.
Peter and his ex-girlfriend had only been dating a couple of months when she discovered she was pregnant. They stayed together until shortly after Jessica’s birth, but the relationship deteriorated right before Peter was offered his dream job back in Los Angeles. Peter had grown up in Los Angeles and his entire extended family was there, so it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
For the first two and a half years after they broke up, Peter would fly to San Antonio once a month to spend the weekend with Jessica. Peter’s ex would occasionally fly to Los Angeles and stay at his mother’s house so Jessica could spend time with Peter’s family. Peter also voluntarily paid his ex $1,500 monthly in child support – a number which he says they mutually agreed upon.
It wasn’t the perfect co-parenting relationship, but it was going pretty smoothly until Peter fell in love with and married Ashley. Struggling to make ends meet, Ashley suggested Peter research what his legal requirements regarding his child support payments would be. After hunting around on the internet, Peter discovered a Texas child support payment calculator, which determined his support payments to be approximately $750/month.
After Peter informed his ex-girlfriend that he would be reducing her support payments by half, Peter’s ex responded by refusing to take his phone calls, moving without informing him of her new address, and quitting her job. Peter was distraught about his inability to contact or see Jessica and didn’t know where to turn.
Thankfully, Ashley stepped in and decided to do some investigating of her own. To her great relief, the Texas Office of the Attorney General Child Support Division maintains a fantastic website, which made it easy for Ashley to determine Peter’s rights and responsibilities.
In particular, she was relieved to learn that Texas courts favor joint custody – parents are encouraged to commit to any schedule that works for both of them – but if they can’t agree, the court has created a standard possession order (SPO) that uniformly sets the schedule for each parent’s time with the child.
Per the website, if Peter and Ashley lived in San Antonio, the SPO would provide for them to have a couple of hours of visitation every Thursday night and to have weekend visitations on the first, third and fifth weekends of the month. Peter would have had custody of Jessica for Thanksgiving and Christmas on odd-numbered years, spring break on even-numbered years and 30 days of possession during summer vacation. The SPO would even set up standards for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and the Child’s birthday.
Amazingly, the Texas courts even considered what to do if the parents live more than 100 miles apart, like Peter’s and his ex’s situation. In this scenario, weekend visitations are limited to one per month, but Peter would get 42 days of custody during the summer months.
Armed with this information, Peter decided to formally file for joint custody at the Bexar County courthouse. Because their finances were limited, Peter and Ashley initially wanted to represent themselves. However, after learning that petitioners in pro se (the technical legal term for representing oneself) would need to fill out all the forms in a special legal library under the watchful eye of a court clerk, they decided their limited time in town would prohibit such a course of action. Ultimately, they decided to hire a family lawyer who reassured them that theirs would be a slam dunk case.
Indeed, on the date in question, they walked into their judge’s courtroom and were immediately referred to mediation. Before sending them to mediation, the Judge admonished them that SPO’s are granted without question and encouraged Peter and his ex-girlfriend to work out a schedule that worked for them or to agree to abide by the general terms laid out by the SPO.
Unfortunately, Peter’s ex was not open to either option, so they went back before the Judge a short time later. Peter’s ex spent the bulk of their hearing arguing that she deserved sole custody of Jessica and that her support payments should be reinstated to $1,500.00. Because she was unable to proffer any evidence to support Peter’s losing custody, or an increase in support, and because the Judge was visibly irritated that she was wasting precious judicial resources, the Judge ended the hearing by awarding Peter joint custody and by reducing his ex-‘s child support payments to $350/month to accommodate Peter for his travel expenses to/from San Antonio to see Jessica.
Less than 48 hours after they’d arrived in Texas, Peter and Ashley boarded a flight back to California, immeasurably relieved to have their parental rights reinstated and grateful for the easy-to-follow legal process they’d encountered in Texas.