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The global coronavirus pandemic has thrown much of people’s daily lives into disarray throughout Texas, across the nation, and all over the world. After officials at all levels of government issued declarations of emergency in March, many Texas cities and counties issued “stay at home” orders urging residents to remain in their homes except when on essential or urgent business. This has created a great deal of uncertainty for people with child custody orders, visitation schedules, and child support obligations. School closures and restrictions on travel outside the home can interfere with parents’ usual plans for exchanging the children for their periods of visitation. Economic disruptions could cause serious problems with child support payments. Court closures across the state may make it difficult for parents to enforce their rights quickly.
What can parents in Texas do to deal with these concerns? The Supreme Court of Texas has issued several orders addressing custody issues, and the Texas Attorney General has instituted new procedures for child support enforcement. Locally, courts have announced plans for how they are prioritizing “essential” hearings. A family law attorney can help you understand your rights and options in these unusual times.
Many cities and counties in Texas have asked people to remain at home whenever possible in order to maximize “social distancing.” The goal is to minimize opportunities for transmission of the coronavirus between people, slowing the spread of COVID-19 and preventing Texas hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. Most schools closed in March, and the governor announced in April that they would remain closed for the rest of the school year.
Stay-at-home orders in Harris County, Galveston County, the City of Galveston, and other locations closed many “non-essential” businesses and limited travel to functions like going to an “essential” job, buying groceries, and seeking medical treatment for oneself or a family member. The governor ordered the gradual re-opening of many businesses starting May 1, but the process is certain to be slow.
The Standard Possession Order, which applies in many Texas custody orders whenever parents cannot agree on a visitation schedule, relies rather extensively on school schedules. Parents must be able to travel outside their homes in order to exchange the children for one another’s periods of possession. Someone must pick a child up from school or the other parent’s house, or drop them off at either location. What happens when the schools are closed and people are not supposed to travel?
The Texas Supreme Court anticipated this question. It issued two orders in March, the Second and Seventh Emergency Orders Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster, that directly address these concerns. According to these orders, all visitation schedules will continue to use existing custody orders and the school schedules that were in effect before the schools closed. Travel restrictions in any stay-at-home orders do not apply to the exchange of children between parents. Originally, the two orders were set to expire on May 8, but the court extended them until June 1.
The Texas Supreme Court’s emergency orders are intended to maintain existing visitation schedules as much as possible. Parents can still agree to a different visitation schedule. If they cannot agree, the court system may not be much help at the present moment. Courts across the state have been operating on a very limited basis since March. Whenever possible, state officials have instructed courts to conduct hearings by remote access using videoconferencing technology. The courts will not begin to relax these restrictions until June 1 at the earliest.
In Harris County, the family courts released a statement in March regarding their revised procedures. Only “Essential Court Matters” may proceed currently. Everything else has been postponed until a later date. Matters considered “essential” might not include many custody disputes. The family courts’ statement identifies cases involving protective orders, domestic violence, and Child Protective Services. It gives each court discretion to determine if other matters are “essential.”
Court closures will also affect the child support system in Texas. This could be a concern for both parents who must pay child support (obligors) and parents who receive it (obligees).
The Child Support Division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office (AG) has announced that it has switched to a virtual portal for all of its services. All child support payments in Texas go through a central location so that state officials can keep track of any arrearages. The AG has stated that it does not expect any disruption or delays in processing child support payments. Enforcement actions on behalf of obligees might have to wait, however, depending on whether hearings can be conducted remotely.
With unemployment rising all over the country, many obligors worry about being able to continue making child support payments in the required amounts. Courts usually base child support on an obligor’s income. When an obligor loses their job, the amount they must pay remains the same unless they ask a court to lower it. This can be difficult to do even when courts are not closed because of a pandemic. It is likely to be even more of a challenge now.
Stacey Valdez is a board-certified family attorney who practices in Clear Lake and throughout the Houston, Texas area. At Stacey Valdez & Associates, our clients and their families are our top priority. We are committed to helping our clients through difficult ordeals like divorce and child custody disputes with compassion and tireless advocacy. Please contact us today online, or give us a call at (281) 218-0900 to schedule a confidential consultation to see how we can help you. Your first meeting with us is free in most cases.