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Practice Areas and Legal Definitions

Divorce:
A court of law is the only way one can obtain a divorce decree, dissolution, legal separation, nullity or other form of terminating a marriage. Other than the termination of the marital estate, the court also has jurisdiction to resolve other issues that are intertwined in the existing marriage which include, but are not limited to: custody and visitation rights, division of property of the marital estate, spousal support, child support, restraining orders, etc.

Property and Debt Division:
Marital property attained during marriage, regardless of whose name it is under, can be divided. Marital property can include real estate (including a home bought in contemplation of marriage), pension plans, vehicles, bank accounts, income tax refunds and/or household furnishings. However, property that is inherited by one spouse is not considered marital property, i.e. a family business or estate. If you are contractually bound with your ex-spouse on a debt, the creditor can require the entire payment of that debt from your share of the community property even though the divorce decree assigns the debt to your ex-spouse. Depending on the terms of your divorce decree, you may be able to have certain support obligations under the divorce decree determined to be non-dischargeable by the bankruptcy court or in state court.

Prenuptial Agreements:
A prenuptial, or premarital agreement (often referred to as a "pre-nup") is a written contract created by two individuals who plan to be married. This agreement lists all individually owned property, such as homes and businesses, family assets, stocks and bonds, savings accounts as well as debts, and specifies what will and will not remain individually owned property after the legalization of marriage. Prenuptial agreements also specify whether spousal support will be paid in the event of a divorce, and the intentions regarding distribution of individually owned property upon death.

A factor that cannot be stipulated in a prenuptial agreement is child support. A couple cannot lawfully agree in a prenuptial agreement that either part will in no way be responsible for child support.

Child Custody:
Custody is the charge and control of a child, including the right to make all major decisions such as education, religious upbringing, training, health and welfare. Custody usually refers to a combination of physical custody and legal custody. Many factors influence an award of custody and the way a case is presented in court can have a large impact on the result for you and your children. If you are awarded the children as a primary custodial parent, it has far reaching consequences both to you and to their well being and development.

Child Support:
Child support is a periodic payment made to a custodial parent from a non-custodial parent to help compensate a child's living expenses, i.e. food, clothes, etc., and any other related debts. When one parent is awarded sole custody, as in the event of a divorce, the non-custodial parent is required to fulfill his or her child support obligation by making set payments, whereas the custodial parent meets his or her support obligation through the custody itself.

The spouse who does not have primary custody of the children will, in most cases, pay child support to the primary custodial parent after a divorce based on guidelines in the Texas Family Code, according to income.

Child Custody Modification
Either parent may file a motion to modify with the court that last entered an order regarding the children. If the children have lived in a different county for six months, a motion to transfer the case to that county may also be filed by the parent filing the modification motion or the parent responding to it.

Child Support Modification
Child support can be increased or decreased if there has been a substantial change in either parentís financial situation or in the needs of the children. A change in child support is also justified if it has been three years or more since the support order was issued or last changed and the amount of support should be changed by 20% or $100 a month according to the child support guidelines.

For example, a father paying child support might seek a modification if he is laid off and ends up with a much lower paying job or is injured and cannot work at all. On the other hand, a woman who is receiving child support might seek an increase if the father is earning much more than he did at the time of the divorce.

Custody and Visitation Modified
If the parents are currently joint managing conservators of the children, the court may change who has primary possession and/or the visitation schedule if the circumstances of the child or one or both parents have materially and substantially changed or the current order has become unworkable or inappropriate. Failure to give notice of address changes or of inability to pick up the kids may also justify changes.

Joint managing conservatorship can be changed to sole managing conservatorship or vice versa. A court can replace one parent as sole managing conservator or switch from a sole managing conservator to joint managing conservators. To make such a change, the court would have to find that the circumstances of the child or a parent have materially and substantially changed and that such a change would be a positive improvement for the child.

To change a sole managing conservatorship within one year of an order requires a showing that the childís present environment may endanger the childís physical health or may significantly impair the childís emotional development.

Jurisdictional Issues:
When faced with a relocating custodial parent, the court will general require that parent to give the other parent a minimum amount of notice prior to the anticipated move. This notice gives the non-custodial parent an opportunity to go to court and seek orders restraining the relocation of the child.

These so-called move away cases have gone back and forth on allowing and disallowing a move by the custodial parent with the minor children for over 20 years. While the best interests of the child have always been central to the decision, the uncertainty has made this area murky. Prior to the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act, when parents sought an advantage in a custody tug-of-war, they would move to a "friendly" jurisdiction (that is, a region with a history of rulings favorable to their position). However, after the UCCJA was adopted by all 50 states, family law courts were forced to defer jurisdiction to the home state, and this custody battle tactic lost favor.

Spousal Support (Alimony):
Alimony is temporary or permanent financial support paid from one separated spouse to the other, either in one lump sum or in installments. Alimony is designed to provide the lower-income spouse with money for living expenses over and above the money provided by child support. Alimony differs from child support because it is at the discretion of the judge. Child support is usually determined by state-sanctioned guidelines.

Before a divorce is finalized, all income to the marriage relationship is community property, so it is relatively easy to have the Court order interim spousal support, depending on the circumstances of the parties and what the Court considers necessary and equitable. For the Court to award alimony after a divorce is finalized is considerably more difficult and the circumstances must meet certain statutory requirements in the Texas Family Code.

There are several factors a judge considers when deciding whether to grant alimony. These differ from state to state, of course, but they usually involve things like the parties' relative ability to earn money, both now and in the future; their respective age and health; the length of the marriage; the kind of property involved, and the conduct of the parties.

Adoption:
Adoption is the legal process by which a person becomes a lawful member of a family different from their birth family. Once a final order of adoption has been ruled by a court of law, the adoptive parents gain the same rights and responsibilities as parents whose children are born to them; subsequently, an adopted child gains the same rights as birth children in regard to inheritance, child support and other legal matters. In most U.S. jurisdictions, at the time the adoption is finalized, the adopted child's name is legally changed and the court orders the issuance of a new, amended birth certificate.

Divorce Mediation:
The basic attitude marking divorce mediation is a focus on solving problems, not fighting the fight. Family mediation is a voluntary process which gives a divorcing or separating couple the opportunity to make their own arrangements for their financial and personal future, while protecting themselves and their children from distress and the needless expense of litigation. The strength of a mediated agreement is that it is built by both parties together in an open process that requires all participants to recognize and make accommodation for the needs of the other participants, often without having to compromise one's own.

While no two situations are alike, the emphasis in a mediated approach is to achieve a satisfactory settlement in an efficient, cooperative manner. The philosophy of Divorce Mediation is that as much effort should be exerted toward settlement as is traditionally spent in preparation for and conducting a trial.

Paternity:
Paternity covers all the matters related to proving the parentage of a child or children. For married couples, paternity of a child is assumed to be the spouse, unless there is a court order or judgment stating otherwise. For unwed parents, paternity can be established by signing an Affidavit of Parentage or by filing a paternity action with the court.

Legally establishing paternity or determining that someone is not the parent of child can have a significant impact on divorce settlements, property division, child custody, child support and the ability to move out of state. Determinations of paternity can also have a significant impact on interstate conflict between unwed parents.

If you or someone you know in Texas needs the assistance of an experienced Houston Family Law and Divorce Attorney, or you have additional questions or need you further information, call me today.

           Penny Wymyczak-White     |     723 Main Street Suite 800     |     Houston, Texas 77002     |     713-225-5296
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