Texas law encourages divorcing couples to reach an agreement on child-related issues and document that agreement in a parenting plan. The plan must include provisions for conservatorship, the Texas term for custody, and visitation. In most instances, the plan remains in place until the child reaches the age of 18 or graduates from high school, whichever comes later.
If you decide to draft an agreed parenting plan, you may negotiate directly with your spouse or you may work with a neutral third party in mediation. Some divorcing couples find it helpful to hire a social worker, mental health specialist or other professional to help them. You may use the standard possession order from the Texas Family Code or come up with your own arrangement. Once you reach an agreement on the issues, prepare and sign the documents and submit them to the judge according to your county's local rules.
The deadline for submitting the parenting plan depends on your county's local rules and whether or not you and your spouse have reached an agreement. Some counties require couples without attorneys to submit an agreed parenting plan to the judge or a volunteer attorney several days before the final hearing, while others ask you to bring the plan to the hearing. If you and your spouse cannot reach an agreement, you may each submit a proposed parenting plan to the judge at least 30 days before trial. In such cases, the judge makes the final decision after hearing evidence from both of you.
The first decision to make is about conservatorship and whether the child's residence will be restricted to a particular location or not. Typically, both parents are appointed as joint managing conservators with one having the right to decide where the child will live, but both manage major decisions such as the child's education, religious upbringing and education. In some cases, it may be more appropriate for one parent to be appointed the sole managing conservator and the other possessory conservator, having scheduled access to the child. All parents, whether they are managing or possessory conservators, hold an obligation to support a child. Regardless of title, both parents have the right to attend school activities, be listed as emergency contacts at school and receive medical and educational records. All rights and duties, including the duty to pay child support, must be listed in the parenting plan.
In Texas, both parents have the right to spend time with the child. When drafting your own parenting plan, you may use the detailed standard possession order described in Chapter 153 of the Texas Family Code, if it meets your needs. If the child is older than three years old and lives primarily with his mother, for example, the standard possession order gives the father the right to possession on the first, third and fifth weekends, alternating holidays and vacation periods and on Father's Day. The mother has the right to possession on all other days of the week and alternating holidays as well as on Mother's Day. The standard order also provides alternate possession schedules for children under the age of three and for parents who live more than 100 miles apart.
Customized Possession Order
If the standard possession order is unworkable in your situation, you may agree on a different type of schedule as long as you minimize disruptions to the child's routine, schooling and access to her friends. For example, if the mother works every weekend, the child could live with her during the week and spend weekends with the father or the parents could split the week evenly. In some cases, the child lives with one parent for six months, then moves to the other parent's home for six months. The judge determines if the plan is in the best interest of the child before approving it.