Parenting Plans in Texas Family Law

A practicing family lawyer explains Texas parenting plans.

In 2005, the Texas Legislature updated its child custody and visitation laws by, among other things, requiring parenting plans. Parenting plans essentially replace (or supplement) the Standard Possession Order and the terms previously associated with child custody and child visitation in Texas.

A “parenting plan” is a temporary or final court order that sets out the rights and duties of parents in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship and includes provisions relating to conservatorship, possession of and access to a child, and child support, and a dispute resolution process to minimize future disputes. (Texas Family Code §153.601.) The parents are required to submit a proposed parenting plan, and the actual parenting plan is an order of the court.

Parenting plans are the result of an effort by legislators to update the outdated terminology associated with the conservatorship of children in Texas. The use of parenting plans and parenting coordinators in custody suits should assist in promoting the best interest of children and in helping litigants resolve their issues related to parenting.

Child custody, support, and visitation are typically the most contentious issues involved in a divorce. Once these issues are resolved, the parties usually find it easier to agree on issues relating to community property and separate property. Some parties may find it helpful to mediate a parenting plan with a private mediator who specializes in family law early on in the divorce, then move on to other issues once the children's care and custody have been determined.

Parenting plans have become popular in many other jurisdictions outside of Texas. Parenting plans have actually been around for many years in Texas; however, Texas family law attorneys simply used different terminology to refer to agreements between the parents in divorce and custody cases.

Requirements for a Parenting Plan

Parenting plans spell out the legal obligations, responsibilities, rights, and duties of a child's parents. According to the Texas Family Code, the parenting plan must:

  • set out the rights and duties of the parent or person acting as a parent to the child
  • spell out who will have possession of and access to the child at what times, either by adoption the Standard Possession Order or by amending that order as the parents agree or as the court finds is in the best interests of the child
  • provide for child support, and
  • optimize the development of a close ongoing relationship between each parent and the child.

Parenting Coordinators

A parenting coordinator is an “impartial” third-party appointed by the court to assist the parties in resolving issues relating to parenting and other family issues. (Texas Family Code §153.601(3)). Under current Texas Family Code §153.605, the court or a party may not appoint a parenting coordinator unless the court specifically finds that

  • the case is a high-conflict case, or
  • there is good cause shown for the appointment, and it would be in the child’s best interest.

A high-conflict case is defined as one in which the parents have demonstrated an "unusual degree" of repetitious litigation, anger and distrust, or difficulty in communicating about and cooperating in the care of their children.

A controversial issue concerning the appointment of parenting coordinators involves confidentiality. The current law in Texas prevents parenting coordinators from being compelled to produce work product from their parenting coordinating appointments, disclose the source of any information, and submit into evidence anything other than that which is required under §153.608. Section 153.608 requires that a parenting coordinator submit a written report to the court and the parties as often as ordered by the court, which may only provide an opinion regarding whether the parenting coordination is succeeding and should continue.

Conclusion

The purpose of parenting plans is to decrease the reliance on the courts for resolving disputes concerning child custody, visitation, support, and obligations. Litigation over family law matters breeds animosity among the parties, and clogs the family courts’ dockets. It is also very expensive to go back to court every time a dispute arises. The Texas parenting plan legislation should promote more agreements among parents and provide court orders that will accommodate the changing needs of children affected by divorce and child custody lawsuits. The new legislation should also “encourage parents to share in the rights and duties of raising their child after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage.” Tex. Fam. Code §153.001(3). Furthermore, agreed parenting plans will allow for the broadened use of alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, to alleviate the backlog of enforcement and contempt matters pending in the family courts, and will help parents resolve their disputes without going back to court every time a conflict arises.

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