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Life in Texas has slowed down in some major ways because of the coronavirus pandemic. For people who are going through a divorce, or who have a parenting plan that covers child custody and visitation, this is an especially uncertain time. What impact do the various measures intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus and COVID-19 have on visitation and custody rights? The Texas Supreme Court has issued multiple orders regarding court orders and ongoing court cases. These orders directly address custody orders, and resolve possible conflicts between custody orders and city or county “stay at home” orders. That said, most courts in Texas remain closed, and are only hearing matters deemed “essential.” This might not include many disputes over custody, should one arise at this particular time. If you have questions about a custody problem, a family attorney with knowledge of the Texas court system can help.
Officials at all levels of government declared states of emergency and states of disaster in March 2020. This includes declarations by the Harris County Judge and the Mayor of Houston on March 11, and the Governor of Texas and the President of the United States on March 13. Many cities and counties issued stay-at-home orders directing people to remain in their homes except when conducting essential activities like going to work, buying groceries, and seeking medical care for themselves or members of their household.
Since May 1, the governor has ordered the gradual lifting of some restrictions, but many remain in place. The most recent version of Harris County’s “Stay Home, Work Safe” order, issued on May 1, directs people to “minimize social gatherings” and to “minimize in-person contact” with anyone outside of the household. It also advises “social distancing of at least six feet from any other person” when using “shared or outdoor spaces.”
Child custody, visitation, and co-parenting in Texas inevitably involve travel outside of the home to exchange a child or children with the other parent for their period of possession. Under the Standard Possession Order, one parent may have visitation for up to three weekends each month, plus evening visits at least once during each week. Much of the schedule is based on when the children must be at school and when they are dismissed. What happens when the schools are closed and travel is limited? The Texas Supreme Court has answered this question.
In its Second Emergency Order Regarding the COVID-19 State of Disaster, issued on March 17, the Texas Supreme Court stated that “ the original published school schedule shall control in all instances” related to visitation under a custody order. It further stated that school closures due to COVID-19 do not affect visitation schedules.
The Seventh Emergency Order, issued by the court on March 24, further stated that “the existing trial court order shall control in all instances” regarding visitation. The schedule established by court order “shall not be affected by any shelter-in-place order or other order restricting movement” related to COVID-19.
The Second and Seventh Emergency Orders stated that they were valid through May 8, unless the court extended that date. On April 27, the Twelfth Emergency Order extended both orders to June 1. It also extended any filing deadlines that fell between March 13 and June 1 to July 15.
Whatever agreement parents have about visitation remains in place during the pandemic. The visitation schedule in their court order is still in force. If a visitation order says that one parent may pick up the children when they are dismissed from school, and the children are normally dismissed from school at 3:30 p.m. on a Friday, that parent may take possession of the children at that time even though they are not currently attending school. Parents may travel to pick up and drop off their children regardless of any stay-at-home orders, although they should follow public health officials’ safety recommendations.
If a dispute arises over custody or visitation right now, taking it to court could be a challenge. Courts throughout Texas have significantly reduced their schedules since the declarations of disaster in March. Individuals involved in “essential” court proceedings are encouraged to participate remotely using videoconferencing technology. Proceedings that must occur in person are limited to ten people in most cases.
The Harris County Family Courts issued a statement on March 12 establishing guidelines for conducting hearings and other matters. Anything not considered an “Essential Court Matter” has been indefinitely postponed. “Essential Court Matters” include:
The current reduced court schedule will continue until at least June 1. After that date, guidelines from the state recommend continuing to limit in-person proceedings and offer remote hearings whenever possible.
Board-certified family attorney Stacey Valdez practices in the greater Houston, Texas area. When you are a client of Stacey Valdez & Associates, you and your family are our firm’s top priority. Divorce, child custody disputes, and other family law matters are among the most difficult ordeals many people face. We are dedicated to helping our clients through the process with support, compassion, and tireless advocacy. Please contact us today online, or give us a call at (713) 294-7072 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case. Your first meeting with us is free in most situations.