For a lot of people, “court” is just… well… court. The place where lawyers meet to duke it out in front of a judge, surrounded by glossy wood surfaces, great acoustics, and a lot of gavel pounding.
However, not only is this image false (real court is much less glamorous), it’s also too vague.
In the real world, court isn’t so much a place, as it is a process, which breaks down into several sub-categories (criminal court, personal injury court, and probate court, to name a few). A grouping that also includes—you guessed it—family court.
Here’s what Texas family court is all about, and how the Neal Ashmore team can make sure your court journey runs as smoothly as possible.
What is Family Court?
If family court isn’t a place, then what is it? In short:
“Family court” refers to the laws, procedures, and resolution of family-related disputes—almost all of which revolve around marriage in some way or another.
That’s because—at its most basic function—marriage is a contract. It is the legal process of merging two lives into one. An act that combines assets, properties, and fates as much as it does two hearts in love.
As long as things are running smoothly for the couple, this is pretty straightforward. However, when things don’t go as planned (usually upon divorce or separation), suddenly the concept of joint lives gets a bit thorny. Because while merging two lives into one might not be that complex, dividing them again certainly is.
In family court, lawyers and judges help sort, manage, and enforce the various responsibilities, obligations, and ownerships that arise during divorce. These decisions are made in accordance with Texas common law, and as outlined by the Texas Family Code.
What Issues Are Handled by Family Court?
If family court had a motto, it’d be, “love is a battlefield.” (We tip our hats to you, Pat Benatar.) While not everything in family court stems from an emotional disaster, most of them do.
This actually makes sense, when you consider that ninety percent of the problems we deal with as family law attorneys can be traced back to divorce. Which, as we all know, is essentially just a really fancy—really expensive—breakup.
Generally speaking, there are three main areas that need legal attention, when a couple gets divorced. These include:
- Dividing marital property;
- Deciding on alimony; and,
- Determining child custody.
Here’s a closer look at how Texas family court handles each of these issues.
1. Property Division
In the realm of divorce, the word “property” encompasses much more than just a few cars and the family house. In dividing marital property, everything is carefully considered, not only physical objects, but real property (a.k.a. land), bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, business ownerships, and—yes—even debt.
Upon divorce, this complex list of assets and debts must be divided between spouses, who no longer wish to be seen as the same entity. In pursuit of this end, Texas courts follow the laws of community property.
In a community property split, anything that is brought into the marriage is called “separate property,” and will leave with its respective owner, upon divorce. Assets acquired during marriage, however, belong to the couple equally, and must be divided. In Texas, this split is made based on what’s fair, not necessarily fifty-fifty.
Even for couples of average incomes, this process is generally quite complex (to say nothing for high net divorces). Providing proof as to what is and isn’t separate property can be difficult and contentious, making property division one of the biggest, most time-consuming areas of any divorce.
Another sticking point in divorce is alimony (or “spousal maintenance,” as it’s often called in Texas). This is money that a judge orders one spouse to pay the other, in order to help them get them back on their feet, post-divorce.
In Texas, either spouse can request spousal maintenance—there are no gender restrictions. That being said, due to lingering gender roles and workplace biases, this is most often utilized by homemakers (usually mothers).
That being said, not every homemaking spouse who requests alimony will get it. Instead, Texas courts analyze a number of different factors, to see what would be appropriate in each, individual situation.
3. Child Custody
The third major pillar of divorce is child custody.
Custody refers to the various rights and responsibilities that parents have to care for, and make decisions on behalf of, their child. In most states (Texas included), these rights are grouped into two main categories: legal (the right to make decisions) and physical (the right to have access).
In doling out these powers to parents, Texas judges have the option to give all the rights to one parent in sole custody, or to make them share, as joint custodians. Part of this process also involves deciding who will provide the child’s primary residence, and who will get visitation.
At Neal Ashmore, worried parents often approach us wanting to know how to win these custody battles. Unfortunately, there is no magic potion or incantation that will improve your odds. In Texas, a child’s best interest is the driving force behind every custody decision, so really, the only way to improve is… well… to be a good parent.
Other Areas of Family Court
Not everything in family court is all doom and gloom—you don’t even have to be married to participate in this arena, since things like custody, visitation, and parenting plans are relevant to unmarried parents, too.
In addition to divorce, Texas family courts also see their own share of adoptions (both domestic and international), as well as guardianships cases, power of attorney requests, and grandparents’ rights. The Texas Family Code also outlines the state’s juvenile justice procedures, making juvenile rehabilitation a family matter, instead of a criminal one.
Where is Texas Family Court Held?
While “family court” refers more to the legal process of settling family matters more than anything else, it’s also a place—but not necessarily a single place, like you might be thinking.
Family laws are written by state legislatures, however, individual family law disputes are reviewed and handled at the county level. Hence, all family-related documents, hearings, petition, or post-divorce services will be resolved by county-appointed judges at your local county courthouse.
Keep in mind, however, that you don’t have to have all the bells and whistles of a traditional court trial in order to resolve a dispute. Alternative methods of divorce (such mediation or collaborative divorce) can save couples a lot of time and money, and are much more flexible. They’re also especially helpful for families, who might be hoping to shield children from the emotional toxicity of a lengthy court trial.
If one of these alternative methods interests you, don’t hesitate to contact your handy family law attorney, who can help you determine the right divorce type for your situation.
Texas Family Court Attorneys
In legal terms, tying the knot is much more than a relationship status on Facebook. Marriage is a contract. And—like with any contract—sometimes snarls arise that need untangling.
Whether your family is just starting, evolving, or breaking apart, the experienced attorneys at Neal Ashmore want to help. Call us today at (972) 436-8000, or schedule a consultation online, and let us help answer your questions about Texas family court.