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Texas is slowly reopening after several months of social distancing and stay-at-home orders intended to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. People with pending divorce cases who need a court hearing have either had to wait until the courts reopen, or they have attended “virtual” hearings conducted via telephone or video conference. People who intend to file for divorce may be uncertain about their options at this point. What is happening in Houston courts right now, and what does the future hold for family law cases?
The Texas Supreme Court has issued several emergency orders regarding how courts may hold hearings and conduct other business. Starting June 1, 2020, Texas courts may begin the process of reopening subject to safety guidelines issued by the Office of Court Administration (OCA). At the local level, courts in Harris and Galveston Counties have issued their own orders, statements, and guidelines on how to proceed.
A spouse can file for divorce on the basis of several different grounds, although the “no fault” ground of “insupportability” is the most common. A court usually cannot grant a final decree of divorce until at least sixty days after the date the petition was filed. This sixty-day waiting period gives the parties the opportunity to conduct discovery, attempt alternative dispute resolution, and use other litigation methods.
New divorce cases are filed with the district clerk of the county where at least one of the spouses resides. The person filing for divorce must arrange service of the petition and court paperwork on the other person. Once they have filed the petition, the case will be assigned to a court. Harris County has eleven district courts and one administrative court designated to hear family law cases. Four courts in Galveston County hear most family law cases: the 306th District Court and County Courts at Law Nos. 1, 2, and 3.
The Texas Supreme Court”s Twelfth Emergency Order, signed on April 27, gave courts the discretion to suspend deadlines and make other modifications to usual procedures, and to allow people to attend hearings and other proceedings remotely. In cases where holding in-person hearings or sticking to existing deadlines would endanger someone’s health, the order requires courts to find alternatives.
On May 26, the court signed the Seventeenth Emergency Order, which extends many of the Twelfth Emergency Order’s provisions until July 31. Local courts may begin to reopen on June 1, subject to OCA guidelines.
Courts in both counties have remained open, although they have scaled back their operations considerably. The Harris County Family Courts issued a joint statement on March 12, 2020 regarding safety measures related to COVID-19. The courts postponed all scheduled in-person trials and hearings indefinitely, except for “essential court matters,” which include protective orders, other matters involving family violence, and CPS cases. An order from the Office of the County Engineer, which took effect March 24, limited the number of family courts that could hold proceedings on the same day to three.
The Family Courts issued an updated set of policies on May 5, which superseded the March 12 statement. The new policies retained most of the directives found in the earlier document. They cancelled the uncontested docket, where a judge is available to approve agreed divorce decrees. Instead, the parties can submit an agreed decree with an affidavit containing their testimony. The courts also established procedures for a submission docket, where parties can present written motions for the court to consider without a hearing. These policies expire on June 1.
In Galveston County, the district courts and county courts at law released updated notices regarding court procedures in late April. Through the end of May, most court proceedings are cancelled or postponed. Uncontested and agreed family cases can be presented by affidavits of testimony rather than live testimony.
These orders are all subject to the Texas Supreme Court’s orders regarding the resumption of court operations after June 1, as well as the OCA guidelines on safely reopening.
What does all of this mean for someone who wants to file for a divorce in Harris or Galveston County? The good news is that divorce filings, meaning the filing of new divorce cases, have not been significantly affected by the pandemic. If the parties to a divorce can work out an agreed decree of divorce, they can still present it to a judge for signature. The only difference is that it will not occur in person or with live testimony.
More complicated or contentious divorce matters might be delayed because of the pandemic, unfortunately, if only because court hearings might be delayed. This could be an opportunity for the parties to a divorce to try to work out an agreement, but this is not always possible.
Stacey Valdez is a board-certified family attorney in Clear Lake and the greater Houston, Texas area. Our clients and their families are, and always will be, our top priority at Stacey Valdez & Associates. We are dedicated to helping our clients through divorce, child custody, and other difficult ordeals with compassion and tireless advocacy. Please contact us online, or give us a call at (281) 218-0900 today to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your rights and options. Your first meeting with us is free in most cases.