By: Manjula Shaw, CFP®, CDFA®
“Tips from the Trenches” is a series of articles based on conversations with professionals who work with individuals facing or considering the prospect of divorce. Watch this space for conversations with professionals in Family and collaborative law, Forensic-Certified Public Accountants, Mediators, Marriage Counselors, Family Court Judges, and Valuation Specialists.
Manjula Shaw is a Certified Financial Planner (CFP®) and an Asst. Vice President at Tanglewood Legacy Advisors. As a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA®), Manjula works with individuals facing late-stage divorce.
Manjula’s conversation is with Judge Gloria López, elected to the 308th District Court of Harris County, Texas in 2018. Before taking the bench, Judge López was a family law practitioner. Judge López is bilingual in Spanish and English, a tremendous advantage to her Spanish-speaking constituents; she is also the first Latina to be elected in the 308th District Court.
When Does a Divorce Case Proceed to Family Court?
A divorce case typically proceeds to family court through legal procedures and steps. The specific process may vary slightly depending on the circumstances of the divorce, but here is a general overview of how a divorce case concludes in Texas:
1. Filing for Divorce: One spouse, the petitioner, initiates the divorce process by filing a Petition for Divorce with the district or county court. For example, in Harris County, Texas, the filing could be made on the Harris County District Court website Office of Harris County District Clerk – Marilyn Burgess | Courts (hcdistrictclerk.com) Judge López advises that a petitioner considering a do-it-yourself divorce (pro se) to visit the website and research the fees and the process.
Fees vary depending on whether the filing is for a divorce with or without children. Similarly, remember that the forms required may vary depending on whether the filing is with or without children, with or without child support, or with or without property division. The specific district and the county are generally determined by where the petitioner resides. Judge López says a minimum of ninety days’ residency in that specific county is required according to Texas law.
The other spouse, the respondent, is served with the divorce papers and can respond. Serving is the formal process of delivering legal documents.
2.Temporary Orders: If necessary, the court may issue temporary orders to address urgent issues such as child custody, child support, spousal support, and the use of marital property while the divorce is pending.
3.Discovery: Both spouses exchange financial information, documents, and evidence relevant to the divorce. This process, known as discovery, helps equitably divide property and determine support and custody issues. My article After the Decision – Next Steps covers this topic in detail. Facing Divorce? Tips from the Trenches: After the Decision – Next Steps – Family CFO (family-cfo.com)
4.Negotiation and Settlement: The spouses may engage in negotiation, mediation, or settlement conferences to reach agreements on divorce-related matters. Couples are encouraged to engage a family lawyer at this point. A CDFA® could provide you with referrals.
The divorcing couple may submit a written settlement agreement to the court if they agree on all issues. According to Judge López, this agreement is called “rendering of judgment by proof of affidavit” and can be filed in court. If the parties have an agreement but do not want to file proof of affidavit in the 308th District Court, they can schedule a hearing via video conference (Zoom). The parties’ turn to be heard to obtain judgment depends on the day’s caseload.
5.Court Hearings: If the spouses cannot agree on some or all issues, the case may proceed to court hearings. This may happen when a couple is dealing with intractable problems. However, they must consider whether it is appropriate for a third party to decide on custody of their children or other property division issues.
Judge López remarks that if the couple disagrees on the settlement terms, the case proceeds into what is referred to as the contested docket. The petitioner then needs to file a Temporary Order. Go to the Harris County District Court website for the Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) docket. The judge will preside over these hearings and decide based on the evidence and testimony presented by both parties.
Judge López advises couples who retain divorce lawyers to do their due diligence and retain a qualified and competent professional. In her experience, some cases have been lost due to the lawyer’s incompetence. “A judge cannot control this aspect; a judge is not allowed to litigate.”
Judge López advises not to make decisions on offers or counter offers when the parties are emotionally charged. “Step away. Pull out. Rethink.” Do not allow emotions to get in the way of an attractive offer just to be vindictive.
Judge López points out that the Supreme Court of Texas has issued parameters that certain cases must conclude within a specific timeframe. The minimum is sixty days. It could be waived if the parties are military personnel; they must apply for approval.
Stay tuned for the next article on our discussion: Divorce and Family Court: Trial & Closure.
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