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Acknowledgment of Paternity

The Acknowledgment of Paternity (AOP) is a legal form that parents who are not married to each other use to establish paternity. Paternity means legal fatherhood. When both parents sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity and it is filed with the Texas Vital Statistics Unit, the biological father becomes the legal father. Once the biological father becomes the legal father, he has all the rights and duties of a parent, including his name being placed on the birth certificate. Signing the AOP is voluntary. Parents who would like to establish paternity for their child using the AOP must seek the assistance of an AOP certified entity, which may be found at a local hospital or a local child support office.

Answer

An answer is your written response to the legal petition or lawsuit filed against you. The judge may be able to grant an order, even if one party does not show up, provided specific legal requirements have been met. Notice requirements can vary if there has been no answer and a default judgment is likely. For more information, visit TexasLawHelp.org – Civil Answer and Information Sheet.

Arrearage/Arrears

Child support arrearages build up any time child support is not paid in full. When child support has been ordered but not paid, the amount owed is called arrears. It may include any unpaid retroactive judgment. Although the interest on child support arrears has varied over time and varies by state, since January 2002, a 6 percent interest rate has been charged on Texas child support arrears.

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Best Interest of a Child

This is the standard used by the court in cases involving custody and visitation of a child. The court will consider many facts when deciding what is in the best interest of a child, including the child’s emotional and physical needs, each parent’s ability to raise the children, the stability of each parent’s home, and each parent’s plans for the child’s future.

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Case

A case includes all actions taken by people involved in a lawsuit. The people involved typically include a custodial parent (managing conservator), the child or children, and a noncustodial parent (possessory conservator). The OAG may also be involved if there has been an application for services or a referral.

Cause Number

The clerk of the court assigns a cause number to identify the cause of action requested on a legal matter. The cause number may look different for each county. This is different from the OAG Case ID number.

Child Support

Texas law requires parents to support their children. Child support requires parents to provide food, clothing, shelter, education and other necessary things for the child. The parent who does not primarily reside with the child has a duty and obligation to support the child. The parent ordered to pay child support is an obligor. The parent who receives child support is an obligee.

Clarification of a Court Order

If you think your court order is unclear or not specific enough, you may want to ask the court to clarify it.

Click here to learn more about how to clarify a court order.

If you believe the other parent is in contempt of court, you will need to assemble evidence. See the documents in this Visitation Kit for help assembling evidence.

The visitation demand kit will cover these three things:
1. What you want to happen
2. Proof of what did not happen
3. Prove that you gave the other side at least 10 days’ notice so they can attend and be heard.

Conservatorship

Conservatorship defines each parent’s rights and responsibilities in a court order deciding where a child will live and the rights each parent will have to make decisions regarding the child. Some people refer to this as custody. Conservatorship or custody does not mean the amount of time each parent will have with the child.

Contempt of Court

Contempt of court is when a judge finds that you disobeyed a lawful order of a court, showed disrespect for the judge, or disrupted court proceedings through bad behavior. You risk up to six months in jail for not paying child support. You also may be fined up to $500 for each violation and have to pay attorney’s fees and court costs.   It is common for a judge to also order that the child support obligor, found in contempt, remain in jail until all or a portion of the child support arrearage is paid.

If a court finds you in contempt, it has the option to sentence you to a jail term, order you to pay fines, or place you on community supervision (probation).   Additionally, you must pay your child support in full and on time, make extra payments toward the child support arrearage, pay probation fees as ordered, and pay the attorney fees of the other party, if ordered.

If you believe the other parent is in contempt of court, you must have proof of when and how the other parent violated the order.

One way to keep track of all of this evidence is to keep a visitation journal. If you end up having to go to court, it will help you organize your evidence. You will want to mention each and every violation in the motion that you file with the court, so the judge knows what is happening in your case.

The visitation demand kit will cover these three things:
1. What you want to happen
2. Proof of what did not happen
3. Prove that you gave the other side at least 10 days’ notice so they can attend and be heard.

See the documents in this Visitation Kit for help assembling evidence.

Court Order

A court order is a legal document signed by a judge. Parties to the case must comply with court orders or risk being held in contempt of court. The order can be based on what the parties agreed to, or on the Judge’s decision. The court can punish the person that does not follow a court order. Click here to see an example of a Standard Possession Order.

Custodial Parent

The court will name one parent as responsible for establishing the child’s primary residence and may designate the geographic area of that residence. This parent is the primary joint managing conservator or sole managing conservator of a child, commonly referred to as the “custodial parent (CP).” The CP usually receives child support and is also called the obligee.

Custody

In Texas, custody is called “conservatorship.” Conservatorship orders, also known as custody, are determined at the establishment stage and define each parent’s rights and responsibilities, including where the child will live and the rights each parent will have to make decisions regarding the child. Conservatorship or custody does not mean the amount of time each parent will have with the child. Click here for the definition of Conservatorship.

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Default Judgment

When a person received a notice to appear at a court hearing, but did not appear, the court can enter a “default judgment.” Failure to appear means you will have no say in the outcome of the hearing.

Direct Deposit

Child support payments are electronically transmitted into a bank account or onto a debit card that belongs to the obligee (person designated to receive child support).

DNA Test

DNA is genetic material that a child gets from each parent. A DNA test compares the genetic material of the child and parent(s) to determine who the biological father is.  The test is simple and painless. The inside of the cheek is swabbed to collect samples of buccal cells. The DNA samples are compared to see if the man is the biological father of the child. The results are usually much more than 99 percent accurate.

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Enforce

To enforce an order means to make one or more parties follow the court’s order. Either parent may be compelled by the court to pay child support or medical support, or to follow the possession (parenting time) order.

Expanded Standard Possession Order

Texas law allows the noncustodial parent (possessory conservator) to request a different beginning and ending pickup time for the Standard Possession Order. The noncustodial parent can choose to pick up the child when the child’s school is regularly dismissed, and to end when the child’s school resumes. This replaces the 6:00 p.m. start and end times. The noncustodial parent must make this choice before the order is finalized. Tell OAG staff (and then read the order to make sure it’s correct) or tell the judge your choice before the judge signs the possession order. The choice (called an election) must be made in a written document filed with the court, or spoken aloud by the noncustodial parent to the judge in open court.

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Family Violence / Domestic Violence

Video: Stay Safe, Get Support

Family violence includes:

  • An act by a member of a family or household against another member of the family or household that is intended to result in physical harm
  • A threat by a member of a family or household against another member of the family or household that puts the member in fear of physical harm
  • Abuse
  • Dating violence

Find out more about applying for child support safely at http://getchildsupportsafely.org/

Family Violence Indicator

Safety is a priority. If you or your child is a victim of domestic violence, ask that a family violence indicator be placed on your case when applying for child support services through the Office of the Attorney General. If you access the application online, make sure you do it from a safe computer, such as a computer at the library or a trusted friend’s house. You can ask for the indicator at any point in the process.

A family violence indicator will let the child support staff know that your situation involves family violence. Your case will be scheduled for court rather than for a negotiation conference with the other parent in an OAG office. In court, the judge will be asked to make a finding whether your case qualifies for family violence protections, such as not requiring the exchange of your personal contact information, including your address, with the other parent; and not including it on printed court documents given to the other parent. At court, efforts will be made to keep you and the other parent apart. If the court finds that family violence did occur, the court may alter parenting time orders for safety.

Click here to watch a video on child support information for family violence survivors: Stay Safe, Get Support

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Geographic Restriction

Usually, the managing conservator (custodial parent) is given the right to decide where the child will live. Sometimes, the court limits this right by restricting the location of a child’s primary home to a certain geographic area, often a specific county and the counties that border it. This is called a geographic restriction. It is put into an order so that both parents can be involved in a child’s daily life.

When parents have “joint custody” because both have been named joint managing conservators, Texas law still prefers a court order that gives one parent the exclusive right to decide where the child will primarily live.

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Health Insurance

Coverage that provides basic medical and health care services like doctor visits, immunizations, hospitalization, laboratory, and emergency care. The court will name one parent to provide health insurance, and will also divide the child’s medical expenses that are not covered by health insurance.

See Medical Support for more information.

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Income Withholding

Most child support orders require child support to be automatically withheld from the noncustodial parent’s paycheck. The money goes through the Texas State Disbursement Unit, which records the amount paid by the obligor, and transfers the funds according to law (usually to the obligee/custodial parent).   Automatic income withholding orders are routine and provide an efficient form of record keeping and verification that the other parent received the funds.

Interstate Case

A case where the parents do not reside in the same state may be an interstate case. The Office of Attorney General may be able to work across states on child support establishment, enforcement, or modification. Contact a local child support office for questions on interstate child support enforcement. Another state’s court may be asked to take similar actions because of a Texas request.

The OAG cannot assist with custody or visitation issues in interstate cases.

This website addresses Texas law and general procedures. If your case is out of a different state, it might be preferable to seek advice of counsel in the state where the order originated.

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Joint Managing Conservatorship

Joint managing conservatorship is when the rights and duties of a parent to make decisions about their child are shared by both parties.

Jurisdiction

The court with jurisdiction over a case has the authority or power to hear a case and make decisions about the people involved in the case. Before you can transfer jurisdiction to another judge, you must ask the original court for permission by filing a motion requesting a transfer of jurisdiction.

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Litigation

Litigation means filing a lawsuit with the court. A lawsuit begins when a petition is filed by one of the parties with the clerk of the court. This petition contains legal and factual bases for asking the court to make a ruling. The person filing the lawsuit selects the proper place to bring the lawsuit. The clerk of a court signs or stamps the court seal upon a citation, which is then served on the respondent, together with a copy of the petition. By providing a copy of the petition, the service also notifies the respondents of the reason for the claims, and that the respondents have been sued. Once the respondents are served with the summons and petition, they are subject to a time limit to file an answer stating their defenses to the claims, and any counterclaims they wish to assert.

You can click here to see a sample Answer to Litigation that a defendant must file.

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Marriage

Marriage is a legally sanctioned contract between two adults, whether performed in a religious or civil ceremony. Texas requires a license to get married.

Texas does not require a blood test to issue a marriage license. You can marry three days after your marriage license is issued, and your license is good for 89 days after it’s issued. After that time, a new license is required to marry.

In Texas, as in most states, you must be of the age of consent, not be too closely related to your intended spouse, not be married to anyone else, and have sufficient “mental capacity,” meaning you understand what you are doing when you marry.

Common Law Marriage

  • Common law marriage in Texas can be proven by:
    1. filing a declaration of informal marriage with the county clerk
    2. providing evidence in a legal proceeding that the couple:
      • lived together in Texas as a husband and wife
      • represented to others that they are married
      • had an agreement to be married.

Generally, the couple has two years after they stopped living together to ask the court to recognize their marriage. Not all states recognize common law marriage. Visit www.texaslawhelp.org for more information on common law marriage.

Mediation

Mediation is a confidential, problem-solving process in which a neutral, skilled third person, the mediator, helps parties reach a voluntary agreement. The mediator does not decide how the dispute should be resolved. The mediator helps the parties (you and the other parent) develop agreements that are satisfactory to all parties. Mediation can help parents and other caregivers, including grandparents and stepparents, iron out differences and get back to the business of raising a healthy and happy child.

Medical Support

Child support orders will name one of the parents to provide health insurance or a cash payment towards the child’s cost of insurance. The portion of medical costs that insurance does not cover will be divided between the parents. This also includes dental and vision expenses that are not covered by insurance. A specific amount of money a noncustodial parent is ordered to pay to cover the medical needs of each child on the case is sometimes called cash medical support.

Mistaken Paternity

Mistaken paternity is when a man who has been legally declared the father of a child later learns that he is not the father. Texas law allows courts to terminate the parent-child relationship and the duty to pay child support in circumstances of mistaken paternity. Men who meet the requirements of the law may seek court-ordered genetic testing. If testing excludes a man as the child’s biological father, the court may terminate the parent-child relationship and the duty to pay future child support. The man is still responsible for arrears that accrued up to the termination date.

Mistaken Paternity on texaslawhelp.org

Modification

A modification is a change to an order, for example a change to child support, medical support, conservatorship, or possession. For example, you might seek to change the amount of child support or who provides medical insurance. A court with continuing, exclusive jurisdiction may change the order that provides for the conservatorship, support, or possession of and access to a child.

An agreed or uncontested modification case is uncontested when you and the other parties in your case agree (no one is contesting) to change terms in a previous order about custody, visitation, or child support. Contact the local law library in the county that originally issued your order for help, or online go to TexasLawHelp.org Modification Kit . If there is no agreement, a judge will hear the evidence and make a decision for you.

Motion

A motion is a written, legal document filed with a clerk of a court asking the judge to take some sort of action. This tells the judge that someone on the case wants to make a change to or enforce the current order.

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Noncustodial Parent

In a court order, the noncustodial parent (NCP) may also be called possessory conservator, non-residential parent, or obligor. This parent usually has many or most of the same rights and responsibilities as the custodial parent with one exception. The noncustodial parent does not decide where the child lives. The possessory conservator (noncustodial parent) pays child support to the obligee as ordered by the court.

Noncustodial Parent Special Election

The noncustodial parent can elect to take possession of the child only one weekend per month. In this case, the noncustodial parent gets to pick the weekend he or she wants, as long as he or she gives the other parent at least 14 days’ written or telephonic notice. This is a special election. The NCP has 90 days AFTER he or she moves over 100 miles away from where the child lives to make the election. The noncustodial parent does not have to tell the court about the change; only the other parent or conservator. Written or email notification can be saved or printed as proof of notification.

Nondisclosure (privacy)

In child support cases, the law requires that the contact information (name, address, place of work) for both parents be included in the court order unless the court finds there is a reason not to make this information public. You can request to keep this information private, also called a nondisclosure. If all parties are in Texas, a party must request and justify the nondisclosure determination prior to the court entering the order protecting the party’s information. The most common justification is due to family violence. After a hearing in which a court considers the health, safety, or liberty of the party or the child, the court may order disclosure of information if the court determines that the disclosure serves the interests of justice.

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Obligee

The person designated in the court order to receive child support. This is the custodial parent, or CP.

Obligor

The person designated in the court order to pay child support. This is the noncustodial parent, or NCP.

Office of the Attorney General of Texas

The Office of the Attorney General is the lawyer for the State of Texas and cannot represent either parent. As the official child support enforcement agency for the State of Texas, the OAG provides parents who wish to obtain or provide support for their children with a full range of services.

The OAG’s Child Support Division determines, on a case-by-case basis, which of the child support services listed below are appropriate:

  • Locating the absent parent
  • Establishing paternity
  • Establishing and enforcing child support orders
  • Establishing and enforcing medical support orders
  • Reviewing and modifying child support payments
  • Collecting and distributing child support payments.

The services are required by federal law and funded by the federal government and the State of Texas.

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Parenting Coordinator

A neutral person, who does not have an interest in the case, appointed by the court to help parents in resolving conflicts related to their court order in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship or divorce decree. A parenting coordinator is not required to testify about communications the coordinator had with the parties.

Parenting Facilitator

A trained neutral facilitator appointed by the court to help parents with parenting conflicts related to their court order in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship or divorce decree. A parenting facilitator may be required to testify about communications with the parties, the basis of the recommendations, and the parties’ compliance with the recommendations.

Paternity

Paternity means legal fatherhood. If a man is not married to the mother of his child, he has to take certain steps to become the legal father. A legal father has certain rights and responsibilities toward his child.  Click here to watch a short video from the Office of the Attorney General on the Benefits of Legal Fatherhood.

Petition / Child Support Petition

A petition is a document filed with a court that starts a legal action. A person may file a child support petition with the district clerk if you are not applying for child support services through the Office of the Attorney General (OAG). When there is an OAG child support case, the OAG’s office may file a petition, but the OAG files its lawsuits on behalf of the State of Texas.

Possession and Access / Parenting Time / Visitation

Possession is the court’s word for parenting time. Many call it visitation, parenting time, or possession. The possession order may be a temporary or final court order, authorized by Texas law, that sets out the minimum amount of time the child spends with mom and dad. The order may be included in your Decree of Divorce, or if you were not married, a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (SAPCR–“Sapsir”) Order.

“Possession” of your child means you can see the child in person and decide where the child goes.   It is your time with your child.

“Access” means that you can interact with your child by phone, text messages or by Face Time, Skype, or other social media. You also can attend your child’s extracurricular activities and have access to your child’s school or medical and dental records.

Presumed Father

Presumed father means a man who, as described below, is recognized as the father of a child until that status is rebutted or confirmed in a judicial proceeding or by an agreed Acknowledgment of Paternity signed by the child’s mother, father, and presumed father, that included the denial that the presumed father was the child’s father and was filed with the Vital Statistics Unit.

Generally, a man is presumed to be the father if the child was born or conceived during the marriage. More specifically, a man is a presumed father if:

  • he is married to the mother of the child and the child is born during the marriage;
  • he is married to the mother of the child and the child is born before the 301st day after the date the marriage is terminated by death, annulment, declaration of invalidity, or divorce;
  • he married the mother of the child before the birth of the child in apparent compliance with law, even if the attempted marriage is or could be declared invalid, and the child is born during the invalid marriage or before the 301st day after the date the marriage is terminated by death, annulment, declaration of invalidity, or divorce;
  • he married the mother of the child after the birth of the child in apparent compliance with law, regardless of whether the marriage is or could be declared invalid, he voluntarily asserted his paternity of the child, and:
    • the assertion is in a record filed with the vital statistics unit;
    • he is voluntarily named as the child’s father on the child’s birth certificate; or
    • he promised in a record to support the child as his own; or
  • during the first two years of the child’s life, he continuously resided in the household in which the child resided and he represented to others that the child was his own.

A presumption of paternity established under this section may be rebutted only by:

  • an adjudication under a court proceeding to adjudicate parentage (see Subchapter G of the Texas Family Code); or
  • the filing of a valid denial of paternity by a presumed father in conjunction with the filing by another person of a valid acknowledgment of paternity as provided by Texas Family Code Section 160.305.

Punishment

A judge may:
-Send to jail
-Place on probation
-Order make-up visitation
-Assess a fine
-Order payment of the other parent’s attorney fees
-Revoke or suspend a license to drive, an occupational license, or a hunting or fishing license

See also: Contempt of court

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Reset/Continuance

A court hearing may be rescheduled for a later date, referred to as a reset. If you are in court and hear the judge say reset, that means you will have to come to court again.

Retroactive Child Support

Retroactive child support refers to child support that a noncustodial parent or obligor may be required to pay IF he or she had been ordered to pay. Retroactive child support can usually go back until the day the child was born, separation date, or four years from the date child support is ordered, whichever is shorter.

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Service of Process (served with notice)

Service is the formal delivery of the petition or motion detailing the lawsuit and notice of an upcoming legal proceeding. The notice gives the time and date for a court hearing. When one party files a motion with the court, all the other parties will get served notice of it. A process server will come to your home or work and hand it to you. If you have been served, you must show up at court to protect your right to be heard; if you don’t come to court, a default judgment may be taken against you. If the judge has ordered you to appear in court and you don’t, the sheriff may pick you up and bring you before the judge.

Standard Possession Order

Most custody orders include a Standard Possession Order (SPO) (Texas Family Code Title 5, Subchapter F [153.3101 – 153.317]) that sets the schedule for each parent’s time with the child.  Custody orders refer to parenting time as access and possession, which is the same as visitation.  The SPO tells the parents where the exchanges of the child will take place, where the child will spend the holidays,  and has special rules for when the parents live more than 100 miles apart. The child will spend the first, third, and fifth weekend of each month plus one weekday evening, unless holiday schedules override, and at least one month in the summer with the NCP. Weekends start on Fridays.

The court does not have to follow the SPO if a child is under three years old or if the SPO is not in the best interest of the child.

How do I know if I have an SPO?

Look at your order underneath the heading “Possession and Access Order.” If the noncustodial parent is given the 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekends (beginning on Friday and ending on Sunday), a weeknight visit once a week during the school term, a period of extended summer visitation, and shared holidays, then you probably have an SPO.

Click here to see an example of a Standard Possession Order.

Step Up or Graduated

A “step-up plan” or “graduated” is a type of possession and access schedule or parenting time schedule that requires the noncustodial parent’s time with the child to start off being more limited than it would be under a Standard Possession Order and step up to add more time. This also may be called a graduated or stair-step plan. The noncustodial parent gradually increases time with the child before moving to the SPO schedule.

Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship

Often abbreviated as SAPCR (sap-sir). A SAPCR is a lawsuit brought under Title 5 of the Texas Family Code. A SAPCR results in a court order that states which parent will determine where the child will live; both parents’ rights and responsibilities; and the time the child will spend with each parent. The SAPCR also sets child support and medical support. It does not divide property or debt, or dissolve a marriage.

Supervised Visitation

In supervised visitation, the noncustodial parent can only see the child when supervised by another adult. Supervised visitation gives parents in high conflict situations access to their children in a safe and controlled environment. Supervised visitation is used to protect children from potentially dangerous situations while allowing parents access to maintain the parent child relationship. The court can order supervision by an adult agreed upon by both parents and that the child knows OR by a business specializing in services to high conflict parents, sometimes called a supervised visitation facility. It also may be used when a child has not seen a parent in a long time. There is a fee for one or both parents to use a supervised visitation facility.

Check local supervised visitation centers for eligibility, costs and intake requirements:

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Termination of Parental Rights

Other than mistaken paternity, termination of a parent-child relationship means that your legal rights and access to your child are ended through the court system. Terminations rarely happen unless there is another person, such as a stepparent, ready to assume legal responsibility for the child. Terminating parental rights does not guarantee child support ends. Child support arrears are not affected by termination. Parents must consider the significant emotional impact that ending this relationship can have on the child.

Title IV-D

Title IV-D refers to the section of the federal Social Security Act that covers rules and standards individual states are required to follow in setting up a child support process. In Texas, the Office of the Attorney General is the Title IV-D agency that manages child support for the state.

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Warm-up visitation

Warm-up visitation plans are used to help children get to know or become reacquainted with a parent they may not have seen for a long time. Warm-up time may be supervised by a close relative or friend that the child knows well and can turn to for encouragement. Supervised visitation centers also may provide this service.