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Responding to a Custody Case

Child Custody & Visitation

This article answers frequently asked questions about responding to a custody case.

If you are served in a custody case, also known as a Suit against the Parent Child Relationship or "SAPCR," you will want to respond to the suit quickly. This article will answer questions about what this type of lawsuit involves and how and when to respond.

What is a SAPCR case?

A custody case that is not part of a divorce is called a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (SAPCR case for short). A SAPCR case asks a judge to make an order that addresses custody, visitation, child support, and medical support for a child.

What does it mean to be “served” with custody papers?

Unless a custody case is agreed, the parent who starts the case (the petitioner) must have the other parent (the respondent) served with the initial custody papers by the constable, sheriff, private process server, or court clerk.

The initial court papers include:

The initial court papers will also include the following (if applicable in your case):

  • Any other forms filed by the petitioner at the beginning of the case and
  • Any orders signed by the judge at the beginning of the case (if any).

If you are the respondent, there are several ways you can be served with the citation and SAPCR Petition.

  • You can be served in person by a constable, sheriff, or private process server.
  • You can be served by certified or registered mail (return receipt requested) by the court clerk, constable, sheriff, or private process server.
  • You can be served by posting or publication if the petitioner can’t find you. This means the citation will be posted at the courthouse, published in a newspaper, or published on Texas' citation by publication website.
  • You can be served any other way approved by the judge. For example, if the constable, sheriff, or private process server is unable to serve you in person or by certified mail but can confirm your home address or work address, the judge could order that the Citation and Petition be:
    • Posted to your door,
    • Left with anyone over 16 at your home or work, or
    • Mailed to you at your home or work by regular mail.

Note: Papers filed by the petitioner later in the case will usually be mailed (regular mail) or emailed to you.

Talk to a lawyer if you have questions about being served.

What should I do if I’m served with custody papers?

Read the custody papers right away. Is there a standing order? Has the judge signed a temporary restraining order? Are there any hearing dates? If so, read Standing OrdersTemporary Orders & Temporary Restraining Orders (TROs) to learn more.

Calculate the deadline to file an answer. Find the day you were served on a calendar, count out 20 more days (including weekends and holidays), then go to the next Monday. You must file an answer with the court on or before this date at 10 a.m. If you don’t, the petitioner may finish the custody without you. You can also use TexasLawHelp's Deadline Calculator.

Note: If the 20th day is a Monday, go to the next Monday. If the courts are closed on the day your answer is due, then your answer is due the next day the courts are open.

Try to talk to a lawyer. A family law lawyer can explain your options and give you advice about your particular situation. You can hire a family law lawyer just to give you advice. Or you may be able to talk with a lawyer for free at a legal clinic.

If you need help finding a lawyer, you can:

Decide how you want to respond.

Warning! If you don’t live in Texas or think the custody should be transferred to another court in Texas, it is important to talk with a lawyer before filing an answer (or any other form) with the court.

  • Option 2: File an answer and a counter-petition. A counter-petition tells the judge what orders you want the judge to make in the custody case. Counter-petition forms are now available on TexasLawHelp.org. You can get counter-petition forms in the guide I need to respond to a SAPCR (Custody) case.
  • Option 3: Do nothing. If you have been served with custody papers and do nothing, the petitioner can finish the custody case without you. This is called a “default judgment.” You will not have a say in any of the issues involved in the custody case.

If you have questions about your options, it’s important to talk with a lawyer.

What if I don’t want to be served with custody papers?

If you don’t want to be served with the custody papers, you can voluntarily file an answer (or waiver of service only form). Filing an answer (or waiver of service only form) tells the judge that you know about the case and have received a file-stamped copy of the Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship. The petitioner will not need to have you served if you voluntarily file an answer (or waiver of service only form).

Do I need a lawyer to help me with my SAPCR case?

You do not have to have a lawyer to file or respond to a SAPCR case. However, SAPCR cases can be complicated and your rights as a parent may be at risk. It’s a good idea to talk with a family law lawyer about your particular situation. A family law lawyer can explain your rights and options.

It’s really important to talk with a family law lawyer if any of the following are true:

  • You are afraid for your or your child’s safety;
  • Your case is contested;
  • The other parent has a lawyer; or
  • Your child has a disability.

Can I hire a lawyer just to give me advice?

Yes. You can hire a family law lawyer just to give you advice, review your forms, draft a document, or help you prepare for a hearing. You may then be able to handle the other parts of your case yourself. Hiring a lawyer for a limited purpose is called limited scope representation.

What if I’m concerned about my safety or my child’s safety?

If you are concerned about your safety or the safety of your children, get help right away by calling one of the organizations listed below. You may qualify for free legal help.

For situations involving sexual assault, you can also call Legal Aid for Survivors of Sexual Assault, (844) 303-SAFE (7233).

If you are an immigrant, you can also call Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) (210) 226-7722 (main office).

In an emergency, please call 911.

Find out more in the Protection from Violence or Abuse section of this website.

What is an answer?

An answer is a legal form filed by the respondent in a court case.

Filing an answer with the court protects your right to have a say in the issues involved in your custody case. Read How to File an Answer in a Family Law Case to learn more and use the guide I need to respond to a custody case (SAPCR) for instructions and forms.

How much does it cost to file an answer?

Filing an answer is free.

What is a counter-petition?

A counter-petition in a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship tells the court what custody, visitation, and child support orders you want the judge to order. Counter-petitions do not need to be filed at the same time as your answer. It is okay to file a counter-petition later in the case.

Use the guide I need to respond to a custody case (SAPCR) for instructions and forms for a counter-petition.

How much does it cost to file a counter-petition?

There is a fee to file a counter-petition in a SAPCR. The fee varies by county. Contact the district clerk’s office in the county where your spouse filed for divorce to learn the fee.  

If you don’t have enough money to pay the fee, you can ask a judge to waive the fee. You do this by completing and filing a Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs. You can read about the fee waiver and find forms in the article Court Fees and Fee Waivers and the guide I cannot afford my court fees.

Can I file an answer if I haven’t been served?

Yes. When a custody case is uncontested (agreed), the respondent will often voluntarily file an answer or a waiver of service only. You can also file an answer before being served even if you do not agree.

What orders will the judge make in a SAPCR case?

The judge will make custody, visitation, child support, and medical and dental support orders. The judge can make other orders if the orders are in the child’s best interest.

What is custody?

In Texas, the legal word for custody is “conservatorship.” Custody or conservatorship describes your relationship with a child when there is a court order. Read Child Custody & Conservatorship to learn more.

What is a visitation or possession order?

A visitation or possession order says when each parent (or sometimes a nonparent) has the right to time with a child.

Read Child Visitation & Possession Orders to learn more.

What are child support and medical support?

Child support is money a parent pays to help with the cost of raising a child, such as the cost of food, housing, clothing, school supplies, daycare, and activities. A parent can be ordered to pay child support by a judge. Even if there is no court order, both parents are expected to financially support their child. A parent who does not live with a child and does not help support the child may be ordered to pay “back” or “retroactive” child support to the person who cared for the child.

Medical support is additional child support a parent is ordered to pay to cover the cost of health insurance and uninsured medical expenses for a child. A parent can also be ordered to pay the cost of dental insurance and expenses (dental support). 

Read the articles Child Support, Child Support in Texas, and Medical and Dental Support to learn more.

Can the other parent and I make our own custody, visitation, and child support agreement?

Maybe. If the judge decides your agreement is in the child’s best interest, the judge will sign an order based on your agreement. The agreement must be in writing and included in the order.

What if this is someone trying to change existing custody orders?

In Texas, you can also file a suit to modify a custody case instead of a new Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship. Read these materials:

Related Guides

  • I need to respond to a custody case (SAPCR).

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    How to quickly respond to a custody case when it is part of a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (SAPCR).
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    Find out how to easily use the Texas electronic filing system and learn helpful tips for fixing common mistakes when submitting court documents onl...
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