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Asking the Court to Clarify Visitation Orders

Child Custody & Visitation

This article explains when you can file a motion to clarify ambiguous custody and visitation orders.

Under limited circumstances, you can file a motion to clarify ambiguous child visitation orders. But this is not the same as enforcing or modifying your visitation orders. A motion to clarify cannot change the terms of custody and visitation. It can, however, help your orders become easier to understand and specific enough to enforce.

Why would I need to clarify my child custody order?

If your order confuses you or the other parent, you can file a motion to clarify.

If the orders contain contradictions or provisions that are too vague to follow, then they might be a candidate for clarification. 

Examples: When is a Motion to Clarify appropriate?

  • The original order says that for your weekend visitation, you should pick up the child from school on Friday on one page, but on another page, that same order might say that you’re supposed to pick the child up from the other parent’s house at 6 p.m. on Friday.
  • The original order says that the custodial parent must surrender the child to the noncustodial parent (“NCP”) at the beginning of each period of possession of CP. Such an order does not make sense, because the custodial parent would be ordered to give the child to the noncustodial parent at the beginning of the custodial parent’s visitation time!
  • The order contains a finding that the noncustodial parent is not entitled to have the custodial parent’s home address—then states that exchanges of the child are supposed to take place at the custodial parent’s home address.

What remedies are available in a clarification action?

The court can issue an order making the previous terms clear enough to be enforced.  There is some discretion allowed here. For example, in one case where the parties were disagreeing about when to exchange the child, the court ordered the custodial parent to provide the noncustodial parent with a school calendar.

When does a clarifying order take effect?

The clarifying order only applies moving forward, after the court signs it. You must give the other party a reasonable amount of time to start complying with the clarified portions.  If they still do not comply after a reasonable period, the clarifying order can be enforced by contempt.

What are the basic steps in filing a clarification action?

  1. Learn the law about clarifications (in particular, read Texas Family Code section 157.421 through 157.426).
  2. File a motion to clarify.
  3. Have the motion served on the other party.
  4. Prepare your clarifying orders.
  5. Attend a hearing.
  6. The judge will grant or deny the motion for clarification and issue orders.

What’s the difference between a motion to clarify and a petition to modify?

A motion to clarify is NOT the same thing as a modification suit.

In a clarification action, the court cannot change anything fundamental in the order.

If you do need to change something about the terms of the order, learn more at Changing a Custody, Visitation, or Child Support Order

What elements do I have to prove to clarify the orders?

A court can grant your motion to clarify if you show that:

  1. The provision is ambiguous;
  2. The provision would be enforceable by contempt if clarified; and
  3. The ambiguity is nonsubstantive.

How much time do I have to file a motion to clarify?

You have until no later than six months after the visitation order expires. A visitation order expires when the child turns 18, gets married, becomes emancipated, or joins the military. If there’s no reason to try to enforce the order anymore, then there is no need to try to clarify it. 

Where do I file a motion to clarify?

In the court of continuing, exclusive jurisdiction—meaning the court where the custody orders were issued (unless the matter has been transferred somewhere else).

Can I change something “substantive” about the orders?

No, you cannot use a motion to clarify to change the orders. For example, you can’t ask the court to insert terms prohibiting the other parent from moving out of state, if the original orders the court issued don’t include any geographic restrictions on the child’s residence. If you want to change the terms of the orders, you need to file a modification suit.

Can I file a motion to clarify to fix a simple “clerical error” in the orders?

The point of a motion to clarify an order for possession and access is to correct unworkable orders. Once corrected, the orders would be enforceable.

If there is a clerical error, your approach depends on how long ago the judge signed the orders. If more than 30 days have passed (and no one filed a motion for new trial), you can file a motion for judgment nunc pro tunc to correct the orders. If the order is less than 30 days old, instead file a motion to modify the judgment. For more information, look to resources in your local law library. 

Can a motion to clarify change the visitation schedule?

No. To change a visitation schedule, you file a modification suit.

If you filed a clarification but should have filed a modification, you can file a nonsuit, ask the judge to vacate the motion, or amend your petition.

The order IS clear, you just don’t understand it.

Talk to a lawyer.

You refuse to pay child support in an effort to get in front of the judge.

You have the right to clarify your orders in court. Passively refusing to pay child support because you think that’s your only option for getting in front of the judge has serious consequences. Additionally, that’s money you’re withholding from your child, not the custodial parent!

This article only explains how to get to court to clarify your orders. If you’ve been refusing to pay child support and a child support enforcement action is filed against you, you should talk to a lawyer.

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