Unless there is a formal, written child support order signed by a judge, each parent has equal rights to take possession of the child, keep the child, and seek financial support from the other parent. This arrangement works fine for some parents and their children, but it is a nightmare for most. Formal, written orders provide rules governing how the parents make decisions for their children, share time with their children, and provide financial and medical support for their children.
When there is no formal child support order in place, each parent has equal rights to take possession of the child and keep the child. This can lead to abusive behavior where one parent takes the child, hides the child from the other parent, and the other parent never gets to see the child. It can lead to both parents plotting to grab the child from day-care or school to prevent the other parent from taking possession of the child. It leads to confusion for the child, even if the child is an infant, because the child is in the middle of the parents' games.
A formal order establishes rights and duties for each parent and for the child. Even with a court order in place, parents retain significant freedom in making decisions that affect their child including how to share time with their child.
Contents of a Texas Child Support Order
Texas child support orders contain comprehensive parenting plans that provide for:
- CONSERVATORSHIP: How parents will share decision-making rights regarding their child. More information
- POSSESSION: How parents will share time with their child. More information
- SUPPORT: How parents will provide financial support and medical and dental care for their child.
This article focuses on the SUPPORT provisions of the court's order.
Who Should Seek a Child Support Order?
If you think of a child support order as no more than an enforceable obligation to pay money to the other parent, it seems obvious that the child's primary caregiver should always be the parent who seeks a formal child support order. That's wrong. A formal order establishes and protects BOTH PARENTS' interests.
Child's Primary Care-Giver
If you are the child's primary caregiver, you and your child are entitled to financial help from the other parent. Some parents think they can reach an informal agreement about child support and some actually do. The problems begin to arise when the parent who pays child support fails to do so or the child's circumstances change such that the child requires more support. Unless there is a formal child support order in place, there is nothing that anyone can do to enforce the informal agreement or compel the other parent to provide more generous support.
Worse, you also face the problem that arises when you try to talk about financial support: Either the other parent or the other grandparents try to take primary possession of the child away from you, paint you as an unfit parent, and try to get you to pay child support.
When there is no order, the games never stop.
The Parent Who is NOT the Child's Primary Care-Giver
If you are not the child's primary caregiver, you'll want a formal court order because it will announce your rights (and duties) and provide severe penalties in the event that the other parent tries to violate your rights or, worst of all, cut you out of your child's life.
Some parents think that they are sliding by when there is no formal order and they resist or even make threats if the other parent mentions child support. The problem is that the other parent can seek child support at any time and ask the court to order you to pay retroactive child support ("back child support") for all the months that there was no order in place. Even if you provided financial support for your child, the judge is not required to give you credit for that and you can end up with a retroactive child support obligation of tens of thousands of dollars and face damage to your credit, experience greater difficulty in getting a job or a promotion, have your professional and driver's license suspended, lose your passport, and eventually face jail time if you fail to pay it off. No one needs that kind of uncertainty in their life.
Moreover, if there is no formal order in place, the other parent may eventually take the position that they can dictate when, where, and for how long you can spend time with your child. These conflicts are magnified if either of you moves into another relationship.
A formal order resolves the financial issues and brings peace to the co-parenting arrangement.
Two Ways to Get a Child Support Order
Texas Attorney General Child Support Orders
Either parent may ask the Texas Attorney General to establish a formal order containing all three parenting-plan elements listed above. If your child receives state benefits such as Medicaid, CHIP, or TANF, the Attorney General's office will eventually seek a child support order even if neither parent asks for one.
When the Texas Attorney General's Child Support Division begins the child support process, they do not represent either parent--they represent the State of Texas. Because they do not represent either parent, they are not likely to take any special circumstances into consideration. That's not their job. Their job is to establish a child support order that follows the Texas Child Support Guidelines. The Texas Attorney General's office does a good job, but, because of their enormous case-load, they are not fast and they cannot help you with non-standard orders, such as a 50:50 possession schedule or support that varies from the guidelines.
Even though the Texas Attorney General does not represent you nor will they help you with a customized order, an order from the Attorney General is better than no order at all in most cases. One way to save costs is to let the Attorney General start the child support process, then, before they hold their first negotiation conference or court appearance, hire an attorney to represent you from that point and going forward. No matter how agreeable or simple you think the case is, it's never a good idea to go to court without your own lawyer.
Private Child Support Orders
If you want a custom possession order (for example a 50:50 possession order or an order with any non-standard terms), you need to hire an attorney to file a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship on your behalf. This will be a more formal proceeding conducted by an elected judge who will take everything about you, the other parent, and your child's needs into consideration. The Texas Family Code provides default rules about conservatorship, possession and access, and child support, but judges have the discretion to create orders outside of those default rules if either parent can prove that the default rules are not workable or that another arrangement would better serve the interests of your child.
Private litigation is slower-paced at the beginning because both parents are given plenty of time to gather evidence and try to come up with an agreed arrangement that is written into a formal order. If the parents cannot reach an agreement on all issues, a judge will decide how to resolve the remaining conflicts.
This route can be more expensive (not always) yet it is the only way to get every issue in front of the judge so that the final order reflects the legally-important circumstances of your case.
We Help Parents Get Child Support Orders
Children have a right to be financially supported by both parents and to spend plenty of time with both parents. If you are your child's primary caregiver, you have a right to receive regular, monthly payments from the other parent to help support your child. Child support is never enough to completely support a child--that's why you need experienced legal representation to help you get as much financial support for your child as the law will allow. If you are not your child's primary caregiver, you still have important rights that can only be protected through a formal court order.
If you need to establish child support, you need an attorney. Whether you start the process by working with the Attorney General or on your own, you need an attorney. We're here to help. Give us a call: 972-985-4448.