Alternative Ways to Decide Child Conservatorship in TX

Often, when people think of a dispute over children, their minds go straight to a courtroom complete with lawyers and a judge.

While traditional litigation is one way to decide child conservatorship, other methods are growing in popularity because of their potential to resolve issues faster, save parents money, and — perhaps most importantly — help families compromise.

See if one of the following alternatives might work for you.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans for traditional and alternative methods of deciding custody.

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Mediation

When parents have some common ground, mediation is a highly-recommended method of keeping decisions about conservatorship, possession and access in their hands. The mediator is a neutral party who helps the parents find a solution to disagreements, so the parents can file a settlement with the court.

The mediator typically meets with each parent in a separate room, moving between the rooms to explain parenting plan options and find an arrangement both parents are happy with. Occasionally, the mediator will ask parents if they’d rather discuss options face to face.

If you have a lawyer, he or she will accompany you and advise you during mediation sessions.

If parents reach an agreement in mediation, they will most likely step foot in a courtroom only one time — to get a judge’s signature. A judge will approve their proposed court order, unless it's not in the child's best interest or one of the parties was influenced by violence.

Most families who choose to mediate reach settlement within a handful of sessions, which can each last from two hours to a full day. Consecutive sessions may be spread over weeks or months. If parents are only able to agree on certain items, they can decide the rest through a trial or another resolution method.

Since mediation proceeds faster than litigation, it’s often much less expensive. Mediators’ fees might be calculated by the hour (often $100 to $450 an hour per party) or by the session (often $400 to $2,500 per party for a full day). Dallas County offers pro bono mediation for people who qualify. When parents bring lawyers to mediation, each pays his or her own, in addition to paying the mediator.

Besides cost, perhaps the biggest advantage of mediation is control. Parents don’t have to put their children’s fate into a judge’s hands. The result is not only a parenting plan tailored to the family’s needs, but often a better co-parenting relationship, as well.

Another advantage is that all discussions are confidential, unlike statements given in a courtroom. Even in mediation, though, documents filed with the court are generally public record. And mediators are required to report certain information to authorities, such as threats and revelations of abuse or neglect.

Because of its benefits, many Texas courts require parents to try mediation before going to trial. If the sessions are successful, the parents file a settlement, which usually brings their case to an end. If they do not reach agreement, their case proceeds through the court process as usual.

Make sure to choose a mediator who is specifically trained in family law matters. Some mediators further specialize in areas that may help them better understand your situation, such as Christian mediation or LGBTQ mediation.

Whether you’re using it as an alternative to litigation or as a step before trial, make sure to prepare thoroughly before mediating.

Collaborative law

In collaborative law, parents are supported by a team of professionals as they work toward a settlement. The process is similar to mediation, but offers the help of additional people, making it ideal for bigger or more complex disputes.

In the collaborative process, each parent hires his or her own collaborative attorney, specially trained in helping parties agree on solutions outside of court. The parents and their attorneys form the base of the "collaborative team."

The rest of the team is made up of professionals who work with both parents neutrally. A financial professional helps the parents assess their assets, and a mental health professional helps them develop a parenting plan and possession schedule. A child specialist is optional and serves as a representative for the children, sharing the children’s points of view with the team.

The entire team meets for four or five conferences, in which everyone works together, discussing the pros and cons of potential solutions to the parents’ disagreements. The parents are the decision makers and always have final say.

Each joint conference is dedicated to specific topics:

  • 1st conference = Immediate issues and goal-setting
  • 2nd conference = Finances
  • 3rd conference = Parenting plan and possession schedule
  • Additional conferences = Any points that still need negotiating

Collaborative law is a voluntary process and cannot be ordered by a court. The entire team signs a contract committing to resolve the family’s issues outside of court.

Parents often reach agreement in six months to a year of collaboration, though the timeline varies based on their willingness to compromise. At that point, a proposed order is filed with the court and turned into a final order, as long as it’s in the best interest of the children involved.

In rare cases, parents are unable to reach agreement, so they cancel their collaboration contract and go to court over the items that remain disputed. In this case, all members of the collaborative team are required to withdraw, and the parents have to find new attorneys in order to keep the collaborative process confidential.

Potential benefits of using collaborative law to decide conservatorship, possession and access include:

  • Transparency: The parties agrees not to withhold information.
  • Speed: Decisions can be made quickly when everyone meets in one room and there’s no waiting for court dates.
  • Cost savings: Although each team member is paid by the hour, collaboration costs about 25 percent less than a litigated divorce, on average. That’s because faster progress fewer billable hours. (It is, however, more expensive than mediation.)
  • Privacy: All discussions are confidential (except threats and revelations of abuse, neglect, abandonment, exploitation or plans to commit/conceal a crime). Documents filed with the court will still be public.
  • Control: You make your own decisions, instead of a judge or jury.
  • Family consensus: When parents reach decisions together, they often have a better co-parenting relationship.
  • Expanded focus: You can include anything in your collaboration agreement, whereas judges are limited in what they can order. For example, parents often agree to put money into a college fund for their child, which a judge could not order without parental agreement.

After settling their case through collaboration, parents often hire the collaborative mental health professional to serve as a parenting coordinator and help them through any future disputes.

Arbitration

Arbitrators are people who make impartial decisions to settle disputes. By presenting evidence, parties (or their attorneys, which are optional and highly recommended) try to persuade the arbitrator or panel of arbitrators to rule a certain way. The private process is similar to a trial, but happens outside of court.

An arbitration decision can be binding or non-binding.

If the parties in a child conservatorship and possession case agree in advance to binding arbitration, their court will issue an order that reflects the arbitrator’s ruling, making it legally enforceable. To ask the court not to affirm the arbitrator’s ruling, a parent would have to show how the ruling could harm the child.

In non-binding arbitration, parents can choose together to submit the arbitrator’s decision to a court to make it legally enforceable. Otherwise, the ruling guides the parents in their negotiations by showing them how a trial might end.

Both parties must agree to arbitrate. They might agree before a dispute even arises; marital agreements (see below) and settlement agreements often state that the parties will arbitrate future disputes that can’t be settled through mediation or collaborative law. Alternatively, the parents might decide at the start of a case that they want to arbitrate and ask a judge to refer their suit. Or they might commit when they begin mediation; mediation contracts frequently stipulate that issues left unresolved will be decided by the mediator via binding arbitration.

Arbitration’s benefits include a shorter timeline compared to trial. Preparing your evidence will take as long as it would for trial, but as soon as both sides are ready, the arbitration hearing can begin without waiting for a slot on a crowded court calendar. The hearing often lasts only a day.

Another benefits is that arbitrating is a private process, and the details of your case will not be available to anyone who’s not directly involved.

Some religions offer their own version of arbitration. In Jewish and Islamic courts, rabbis, qadis or imams look at the facts and make decisions following their religions’ laws and customs.

Marital agreement

Commonly known as pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreements (depending on when they’re signed), marital agreements dictate how property will be divided if a marriage ends.

These agreements can also include plans for conservatorship, possession of and access to children from a marriage. However, terms involving children will only be enforced by a court if they are in the children’s best interests.

It's important to note that marital agreement is an unreliable way of deciding conservatorship, possession and access. Many times, what may have been appropriate for the children at the time of signing is no longer in their best interest when the parents separate. Because of this, judges do not regularly enforce stipulations affecting children in marital agreements.

Private judging

Texas is one of a small number of states where family law cases can be heard by what have been nicknamed "private judges." In this arrangement, parties agree on and pay a judge to rule on a case.

Private judges — technically called "special judges" — must remain neutral and follow all state and local statutes. They are former district judges given authority by the court to rule on a specific case.

The advantages of a private judge include:

  • Sooner hearings or trial, and more say in the dates and times
  • Less chance of your hearing or trial being postponed due to court backlog
  • Control over which judge hears your case (You can choose one you trust to rule fairly.)
  • Assurance you will have the same judge the entire process
  • More personalized attention to your case
  • Potential to stay out of public view (Public hearings are not held in courtrooms, but in a location the parents and judge agree on.)
  • Less-formal atmosphere

The advantage to the court system is a lightening of its caseload.

The process goes like this: After filing a suit, parents can ask the court to refer their case to a private judge they have chosen together. The parents sign a contract with the private judge, and a court order gives him or her nearly all the powers of a district judge until a decision is rendered in the case.

The parties present evidence to the judge as usual, and the judge’s decision is binding, just as if it were issued by a district judge. The parents cannot change judges, except for certain reasons like conflict of interest. A parent can appeal the decision of a private judge in a Texas Court of Appeals.

Private judges usually charge hourly rates slightly higher than that of family law attorneys in the area. Parents must also pay the court reporter, any attorneys they hire (recommended), and any administrative fees. Initially, the parents decide how to split costs, but the judge can later order a redistribution. No public funds can be used.

One of the few things a private judge cannot do is hold a jury trial. If you decide to use a private judge, you must waive your right to a trial by jury.

Remember that a private judge is no less serious or more lenient than a traditional judge, and make sure to prepare for court accordingly.

Informal negotiation

If parents are able to negotiate, they may be able to agree to a parenting plan and possession schedule on their own or through discussions with their attorneys present.

If the agreement follows state guidelines for child support and includes the standard possession order, a judge is very likely to issue a final order reflecting the parents’ terms. If the parents have agreed to deviate from either of these standard elements, the court may be less likely to grant an order in line with their wishes until the parents have attended mediation (details above).

The settlement process can be difficult to navigate on your own. If you don't have an attorney representing you, you should at least should have a legal professional review your documents. Use our Texas custody resources for additional help.

Preparing for alternative dispute resolution

Preparation is as important when you decide custody through an alternative method as it is when you decide it in a courtroom.

Unless you and the other parent agree on all aspects of conservatorship, possession and access, you will be trying to convince someone — the other parent, an arbitrator or a private judge.

A parenting plan and schedule are great starts for presenting your argument persuasively. You may also need to track the time you spend with your child, keep a log about interactions with the other parent, calculate who pays the child’s expenses, and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do everything in one place.

With a parenting plan template, possession calendars, a journal, an expenses tracker and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you’re prepared for any method of deciding custody in Texas. It makes sure you’re prepared to get what’s best for your child.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans for traditional and alternative methods of deciding custody.

Make My Texas Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans for traditional and alternative methods of deciding custody.

Make My Plan