Houston Family Law Glossary

A divorce can be a confusing time for a family, and the complex language from attorneys and the court can overwhelm the parties. This glossary will provide a brief explanation of common terms used during divorce proceedings

Best interest:

Every proceeding affecting the parent-child relationship is guided by the principle of the best interest of the child. See Tex. Fam. Code § 153.002.

Managing Conservator:

A sole or joint managing conservator is a party with rights and duties concerning the child as spelled out under Chapter 153, subchapters B and C of the Texas Family Code. The court presumes that it is in the child’s best interest that his or her parents be named joint managing conservators, but that presumption is rebutted when there is a history of family violence. When a child’s parents have been appointed as joint managing conservators, one conservator must have the exclusive right to determine the child’s primary residence. Other rights and responsibilities are shared between the conservators.

Possessory Conservator:

A possessory conservator is a conservator of the child in addition to the managing conservator with rights and duties set out under Chapter 153, subchapter D of the Texas Family Code. A parent may be appointed a possessory conservator may be appointed if it is not in the child’s best interest for that parent to be named the child’s managing conservator.

Standard Possession Order:

Under Chapter 153, subchapter F of the Texas Family Code, a Standard Possession Order (or “SPO”) is a guide for courts when determining what periods of time the child will spend with each conservator. The guidelines are created to apply to children aged three and older.

Briefly, an SPO sets out that, for conservators who live less than 100 miles apart, the child will live with one parent, who designates the child’s primary residence, and spend the first, third, and fifth weekends with the other parent. The weekend will start on Friday at 6:00 p.m. and end at 6:00 p.m. the following Sunday. Additionally, during the school term, the child will spend Thursday from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. with the other parent. The SPO can be expanded to allow these periods of possession to begin at the time school is dismissed and end when school resumes.

For parents that live more than 100 miles apart, an SPO gives the parents a choice—either the same weekend possession for parents who reside less than 100 miles apart or one weekend a month of the non-primary parent’s choice.

An SPO also sets out a schedule for how the parents will share school vacations and holidays and what to do when a period of possession is extended by a three-day weekend.

Child Support Guidelines:

Chapter 154, subchapter C of the Texas Family code sets out guidelines for courts to use to determine equitable child support. Guideline support may be adjusted up or down dependent on many factors such as the age, needs, and expenses of the child, the ability of the parents to contribute, financial resources available to support the child and the obligee’s net resources, the amount of time an obligor has possession of or access to the child, whether either party has custody over other children, whether spousal maintenance or alimony is being paid or received, how health expenses are divided between the parties, the cost of travel between the child’s conservators, and “any other reason consistent with the best interest of the child, taking into consideration the circumstances of the parents.” Tex. Fam. Code § 154.123(b)(17).

Under the guidelines, a child support obligor is to pay 20% or his or her monthly net resources for the support of one child and 5% more for each additional child up to 40%.

Amicus attorney, attorney ad litem, and guardian ad litem:

Under Chapter 107 of the Texas Family Code, a court is empowered to appoint a lawyer (or, in the case of a guardian ad litem, an adult with competence, training, and experience sufficient to represent the child’s best interest, but not necessarily a licensed attorney) to aid in different ways. While the three appointees may have overlapping powers, they each have separate duties. An amicus attorney is an assistant of the court and tasked with protecting the child’s best interests rather than providing legal services to the child. Similarly, a guardian ad litem’s job is to represent the best interest of the child. By contrast, an attorney ad litem provides legal services to a party or a child. The attorney ad litem owes his or her client a duty of undivided loyalty, confidentiality, and competent representation.

Modification:

After a final order, such as a divorce decree, has been reached in a case, the child or parties subject to the order may find the terms of the order to be unworkable or impractical in some way. If there was a material and substantial change in circumstances, a party may file a motion to modify the prior order.

Standing:

Often a person other than a child’s parent—such as a step-parent, a sibling, an aunt or uncle, or a grandparent—might want to gain custody of a child. The legislature has recognized that some of these family members or adults close to the child may at times have standing, which means the right to file suit. For who has this right, see Chapter 102 of the Texas Family Code.

Intervention:

At times, a family member or close adult may want to join an existing suit concerning custody of a child. The adult with file a motion to intervene to become a party to the law suit. Chapter 102 explains the basis for standing and when one may be granted leave to intervene in a suit.

Termination:

Chapter 161 of the Texas Family Code explains how a parent’s parental rights may be terminated—either voluntarily (if a parent wishes to give a child up for adoption) or involuntarily (if clear and convincing evidence shows that the parent has committed one of the acts listed in § 161.001(b) and termination is in the child’s best interest).