In determining whether a child must be sent for a visit—and what the consequences could be if you do not send them—first ask if there is a court order for custody and visitation. Some parents will clearly remember going to court and getting an order signed by a judge. Other parents may remember working with the Child Support Division of the Attorney General’s Office, but they never saw a judge. Other parents may remember being served with court papers but never going to a meeting or to court.
How do I find out if I have a court order for custody, visitation, and child support?
If you are not sure whether you have a court order for a child, start by asking yourself these questions:
Have I ever been served with court paperwork regarding this child?
Have I ever talked to a judge or been to court about this child?
Has anyone been put on child support for this child?
Have I ever gone to a meeting about this child with the Child Support people at the Texas Attorney General’s Office?
Did I get divorced from the other parent after the child was born?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, there might be a court order for custody, visitation, and child support for your child.
To find out for sure, you can check with the District Clerk’s Office in the county where the child was living when you got the order. If the child has always lived in one county, it will be easy to determine which county this is. If the child has moved around, you may have to check with several different district clerks’ offices.
When you call the clerk’s office, tell them that you are trying to locate an order in a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (or SAPCR, for short). If you know the case number, you can give that to them; otherwise, give them your name and your child’s name. Some offices may ask you to fill out a form to request a search formally. Some offices may have all their family court records online, and you may be able to search for them yourself. It is a good idea to get a copy of the order for your records and keep it in a safe place.
Tip: If you dealt with the Texas Attorney General Child Support Division, the paperwork you received at the end of a meeting might have been called something else. For example, it might have been called an “agreement.” But this agreement should later have been made into a court order. If you never received a copy of the order, you can ask the Attorney General’s Office to give you a copy. If you lost your order, you could get a copy from the court file at the District Clerk’s office in the county where it was issued. You may have to pay copy fees for the order.
Just because you went to a meeting at the Child Support Office does not necessarily mean there is a final order. Sometimes the process cannot be completed. This could be because the other parent was not located and served because it has not been set for court yet, or another reason.
Why is a court order so important for understanding visitation rights?
The court order lays out the rules for possession and access (often called “visitation”). It is written in a lot of detail to prevent disagreements about what days and times a child should be with each parent. The court order should list the specific starting day and time and ending day and time for each period of possession. It should also include the home or other exact location where the child is to be picked up and dropped off.
If the child lives with you, the location mentioned in the court order is where you should meet the other parent or conservator. The time stated in the order is the correct time to be there. If you do not make the child available for each visit, the other parent can file an enforcement action against you for violating a court order.
If the child does not live with you, show up at the time and place listed in the court order to pick up your child for visitation. If the other parent does not show up or is not there and has not made another arrangement with you (especially if this has happened more than once), it may be possible to enforce the court order against that parent.
What does it mean to enforce an order?
An enforcement case can be filed if the other parent or conservator is violating the order in some way. This is most commonly used to enforce visitation, but it can be used for any violation. For example, if the other parent refuses to give you their address and the order clearly states that they must share that information, this may be enforceable. If the other parent is supposed to be paying child support and is not, this may be enforceable. The Attorney General’s Office Child Support Division will often help with child support enforcement.
When you file an enforcement, you can ask the judge to punish the person who did not follow the order. Punishment can include make-up visitation, fines, fees, and even time in jail.
An order is only enforceable if it is “clear, specific, and unambiguous as to the duties and responsibilities of the alleged violator.” Ex Parte Slavin (Texas 1967). This is why the order's language is so important and why an order must be read closely to determine what the other person must do.
The schedule in the court order does not work for our family. Can we do something else?
Most court orders allow for agreement with some language like “Possession and Access shall be as agreed or as follows…” and then describe the visitation schedule. If parents wish to agree to something different than the visitation schedule, they can use any schedule they want. But if one of them is not in agreement, both parents are expected to follow the court order. Failure to follow the court order could result in an enforcement action being filed against the parent who violates the order.
If the parents cannot agree on a different schedule, it may also be possible to modify—or change – the court order so that the schedule is more workable. Generally, a parent will have to show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the last court order was signed before a parent can ask to modify it. A judge does not have time, and the courts do not have the resources to address every disagreement between parents. Parents should try to work together and be understanding of each others’ schedules and the child’s needs and best interests.
How strict can I be about holding the other parent to the court order?
In most cases, the expectation is that parents will act reasonably. For example, if a special event or bad traffic causes a parent to run late, it is reasonable to allow it. If an occasional family celebration causes one parent to get a shorter visit than usual, it is reasonable to give that parent extra time the following weekend to make up for it. It is also reasonable to agree to trade weekends in this situation.
Prioritize communication. It is reasonable to expect the other parent to tell you if they are running late or will miss a visit. No parent should be forced to wait without knowing what is happening with their child. Being late or missing visits is not only inconsiderate; it is also difficult for the children. It is in their best interest to know what to expect and to be able to rely on both parents.
If you believe that the other parent has violated the court order without a reasonable explanation, read How to Enforce a Visitation Order.
What if I do not understand my court-ordered visitation?
Once you have determined whether there is a court order, read it carefully. These orders tend to be long and can be confusing. To read more about conservatorship court order basics, read Child Visitation and Possession Orders.
If you need help understanding the order, talk to an attorney. Many law libraries have lawyers who can help read a court order. To find a law library, visit Law Libraries of Texas.
Noncustodial parents with access and visitation questions can find resources at TXAccess.org. See TexasLawHelp's Legal Help Directory to find legal help near you. You may be able to meet with a lawyer in a clinic. To find a clinic, see TexasLawHelp's Legal Events and Clinics Calendar.
Your Options When There IS a Court Order
When there is a court order for conservatorship, visitation, and child support, the parents or other parties to the order generally have two options when it comes to the visitation schedule:
Follow the visitation schedule in the order or,
Agree and do something else. Many orders say, “Possession and Access shall be as agreed or as follows….” This means that agreements can be made between the parties. But not all orders say this, so read your order carefully.
The parties must agree. This does not mean you can coerce or threaten the other parent to do what you want. It is usually a good idea to get all agreements in writing (in text, email, or on paper) so that you have proof of the agreement. However, either parent can change their mind about the agreement at any time. If, for example, the parents agree to meet at 8 PM instead of 6 PM for the exchange, either parent can change their mind and require the exchange to happen at 6 PM again.
Children will often prefer one household. Young children may want to stay with their primary caregiver. Teens may prefer a parent who has fewer rules. Any child might prefer to be in a neighborhood where they have more friends. There are a lot of reasons a child may wish not to go to visit or not to return to the custodial parent. But the law in Texas is that each parent should get some time to bond with the child unless there is a good reason for the court to eliminate visitation. Unless the order says so, there is no opting out of visitation unless the parents agree to it.
Learn about Texas visitation orders, also called possession orders.
Learn about preparing to enforce custody and visitation.
This article discusses how to enforce a visitation order if the other parent is not letting you see your child at the times listed in your court or...