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Instructions & Forms for a Default SAPCR (filed by a parent)

These instructions explain the basic steps in a default Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (SAPCR for short) filed by a parent. Each step includes a link to the form or forms needed for that step.

A SAPCR is a type of court case used to ask for a custody, visitation, child support, medical support, and dental support order.

“Default” means the other parent (or other respondent) is served with the initial court papers and does not file an answer with the court. If the other parent (or other respondent) is served and defaults, you can finish the case without them.

Use these instructions if:

  • you and the other parent have signed an “Acknowledgment of Paternity” form; and
  • you and the other parent are not married (or don’t want a divorce); and
  • there are no court orders for custody and support of your children already in place (other than a family violence protective order); and
  • you don’t think the other parent will participate in the case.

Do NOT use these instructions if:

Note: If there is a family violence protective order, you CAN use this toolkit as long as you meet the other requirements. You must attach a copy of the protective order to your Petition. If you were the victim of family violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) before filing a SAPCR case. You may qualify for free legal help.

Have you read the Frequently Asked Questions and related Articles?

These instructions are part of this TexasLawHelp.org toolkit: I need a SAPCR (custody) order. I am the child's parent. It’s important to read the Frequently Asked Questions and Articles included in the toolkit before getting started.

WARNING! These instructions provide general information, not legal advice. It’s a good idea to talk with a lawyer about your particular situation.

You can print these instructions to use as a checklist.

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Step 1: Fill out the starting forms.

Fill out this starting form:

You will file the Petition with the court to start the case. It tells the judge and the other parents what orders you want the judge to make. The Frequently Asked Questions and related Articles included with these instructions will help you understand your options.

When you fill out the Petition:

  • Print your answers clearly in blue or black ink.
  • Do not leave blanks (unless instructed to do so).
  • Talk to a lawyer if you have questions or need help

Who is the petitioner? You are the petitioner—the person asking the court to make a custody order. You must fill out and sign the Petition. The other parent does not need to sign the Petition.

Who is the respondent? The other parent is the respondent. If your child lives with a grandparent or other non-parent, that person must also be listed as a respondent. Talk with a lawyer if your child lives with a non-parent.

Note: The Petition asks for your address. The other parent will get a copy of your Petition. If you are concerned about the other parent knowing your address, call the Family Violence Legal Line at (800) 374-4673 for free advice.

Fill out these additional starting forms if required for your case:

Make two copies of these completed starting forms:

  • Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship
  • Exhibit: Out-of-State Party Declaration (only if you or one of the respondents lives outside of Texas)
  • Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Courts (only if you are asking the court to waive court costs)
Step 2: File (turn in) your starting forms

File (turn in) your completed Petition and other starting forms with the court in the county where your child lives.

  • To file your forms online, go to E-File Texas and follow the instructions.
  • To file your forms in person, take your Petition and additional starting forms (and copies) to the district clerk’s office in the county where your child lives.

At the clerk's office:

  • Turn in your Petition and other starting forms (and copies).
  • Tell the clerk you want to have the other parent served in person. This means a sheriff, constable or private process server will deliver the initial court papers to the other parent in person.
  • Pay the filing fee and issuance fee (or file your completed Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs if you cannot afford the fees).
  • Ask the clerk if there is a local standing order that you need to follow or attach to your Petition.
  • Ask the clerk if there are local rules or procedures you need to know about for your case.
  • The clerk will write your “Cause Number” and “Court Number” at the top of the first page of your Petition. (Write these numbers at the top of any document you file in your case.)
  • The clerk will “file-stamp” your copies with the date and time. The clerk will keep the original and return your copies.
  • The clerk will print a form called a “citation.” The citation tells the other parent that you have filed a SAPCR case. The citation also tells the other parent that unless he or she files an answer with the court you will be able to finish your case by default (without the other parent). The clerk will attach a copy of your Petition to the citation. The citation and Petition are the “initial court papers” that must be served on the other parent/respondent. Read Step 3 for instructions.
Step 3: Have the other parent served.

It is your responsibility to have the other parent (and anyone else named as a respondent in your Petition) served with the initial court papers by a constable, sheriff or private process server. You cannot serve the initial court papers yourself.

To have the other parent served in person:

  • send the initial court papers to a constable, sheriff or private process server in the county where the other parent lives or works;
  • include the service fee (call first to learn the fee) or a file-stamped copy of your Statement of Inability to Afford Payment of Court Costs; and
  • include a self-addressed and stamped envelope.

The constable, sheriff or private process server will:

  • give the initial court papers to the other parent,
  • complete a Return of Service form that says when and where the other parent was served; and
  • send the completed Return of Service to you or the court.

The completed Return of Service is proof the other parent was served. The other parent will NOT have to sign anything.

If the Return of Service is sent to you, file it at the clerk’s office. The Return of Service must be on file for at least 10 days before you can finish your case, not counting the day it is filed or the day you go to court to finish your case.

Repeat these steps for anyone else named as a respondent in your Petition.

NOTE: If you have trouble getting the other parent (or other respondent) served, read this article: How to Serve the Initial Divorce Papers. If you have questions, you can use Ask a Question to chat with a lawyer or law student online.

Step 4: Notify the Office of the Attorney General (if applicable).

Has your child ever received TANF or Medicaid?

  • If NO, skip this step.
  • If YES, you must send a file-stamped copy of your Petition to the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) Child Support Division (and be able to prove that you did so).
    • Send your Petition by Email – You can scan a file-stamped copy of your Petition and email it. Find the email address for the OAG child support office in the county where your case is filed here: Email Addresses for Child Support Offices. Write the cause number and the county where you filed your case in the subject line of the email. Print a copy of your email. This is your proof. Bring it with you when you go to court to finish your case.
    • Send your Petition by Certified Mail Return Receipt Requested – Or, you can mail a copy of your Petition by certified mail return receipt requested. The post office has the forms for certified mail return receipt requested. Find the mailing address for the OAG child support office in the county where your case is filed here: Mailing Addresses for Child Support Offices. The post office will give you a receipt when you mail the Petition. The OAG will sign the return receipt (often called the “green card”) and mail it back to you. This is your proof. Bring the receipt and the return receipt (green card) with you when you go to court to finish your case.
Step 5: Fill out the ending forms.

Fill out this ending form:

You will ask the judge to sign this form when it’s time to finish your case. Fill it out completely (except for the judge’s signature).

Note: A Standard Possession Order will print with the Parent Custody Order. If this standard possession schedule works for your family, fill it out and attach it to the Parent Custody Order. If it does not work for your family or would not be safe for your children, you may be able to use one of the sample possession orders included with this article: Child Visitation & Possession Orders. Or, you may hire a lawyer to write a possession order that meets the specific needs of your family.

IMPORTANT: You must attach a copy of the “Acknowledgment of Paternity” form for each child to your Parent Custody Order. The “Acknowledgment of Paternity” is the legal form signed by you and the other parent to identify the child’s biological father as the child’s legal father. Get a copy by filling out an Acknowledgment of Paternity Inquiry Request and sending it to the Acknowledgment of Paternity Registry of the Texas Vital Statistics Unit. Get the form here: Texas Department of State Health Services Forms. Instructions are on the form. You can also contact the Vital Statistics Unit at (512) 776-7111.

Fill out this additional ending form if child support will be ordered:

Step 6: Have your forms reviewed (if possible).

Although not required, it’s a good idea to have a family law lawyer review your completed forms. Family law lawyers specialize in cases involving families, such as custody cases.

You can hire a family law lawyer just to review your forms. This is called “limited scope representation.” You may also be able to talk with a lawyer for free at a legal clinic. If you need help finding a lawyer, you can:

Step 7: Wait the required waiting periods.

These waiting periods are required:

  • 20 + day waiting period – From the day the other parent is served, the other parent must have at least 20 days plus the next Monday at 10:00 a.m. to file an answer. Find the day the other parent was served on a calendar, count out 20 more days, then go to the next Monday. The other parent must have until this date to file an answer. If the other parent does not file an answer by this date (and all other requirements have been met) you can finish your case by default without the other parent. Note: The other parent can file an Answer up until the time you finish your SAPCR case, even if the 20 + day waiting period has already passed.
  • 10 + day waiting period – The constable, sheriff or private process server should have completed a Return of Service form stating when the other parent was served. The Return of Service form must be on file with the court for at least 10 days before you can finish your case. Important: When counting the 10 day waiting period, do not count the day the Return of Service is filed with the court and do not count the day you go to court to finish your case.
Step 8: Determine if your case can be finished by default.

Call the clerk’s office to find out if the other parent filed an answer.

  • If the other parent filed an answer, you CANNOT finish your SAPCR case by default.
    • If the other parent filed an answer and will now agree to sign your completed Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order) form, you can finish your case by agreement. Use these instructions instead: Instructions & Forms for an Agreed SAPCR (filed by a parent).
    • If the other parent filed an answer and will not agree to sign your completed Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order) form, your case is contested. To finish a contested SAPCR case, you must set a contested final hearing. You must give the other parent at least 45 days’ notice of the final hearing. Read this article to learn more: How to Set a Contested Final Hearing (Family Law). Remember: It’s always best to have a lawyer if your case is contested.
  • If the other parent did NOT filed an answer, you CAN finish your SAPCR case by default as long as:
    • the other parent was successfully served by a constable, sheriff or private process server; and
    • a Return of Service form (stating when and where the other parent was served) has been on file with the clerk’s office for at least 10 days (not counting the day it was filed or the day you go to court); and
    • the 20 + day waiting period for the other parent to file an answer has passed; and
    • the other parent has not filed an answer and does not file an answer before you finish your SAPCR case; and
    • if anyone else was named as a respondent in your Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship:
      • that respondent was also served and defaulted (did not file an answer with the court), or
      • that respondent agrees to sign a Respondent’s Original Answer form or Waiver of Service Only (Specific Waiver) form and your completed Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order)

If you CAN finish your SAPCR case by default, fill out these additional forms:

Step 9: Get ready for court.

Call the clerk’s office to learn when and where the court hears uncontested cases.

If you sent a copy of your Petition to the Office of the Attorney General (because your child gets Medicaid or TANF now or got it in the past), ask the clerk if the Attorney General filed anything in your case.

  • If no, you can finish your case without further notice to the Office of the Attorney General.
  • If yes, talk with a lawyer about what to do next. You can use Ask a Question to chat with a lawyer online.

Read the article TIPS for the Courtroom for more information about going to Court.

Step 10. Go to court to finish your case.

Bring these papers with you to the courthouse on the day you plan to finish your case:

  • a file-stamped copy of your Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship; and  
  • a file-stamped copy of the Return of Service form showing when and where the other parent was served; and
  • a completed Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order) (with a possession order attached) signed by you; and
  • a completed Income Withholding Order for Support if child support will be ordered; and
  • a completed Certificate of Last Known Mailing Address form and 1 copy; and
  • a completed Military Status Declaration (or Military Status Affidavit for Harris County) and 1 copy; and
  • if another respondent was served and defaulted, you must also bring the following for that respondent;
    • a file-stamped copy of the Return of Service form showing when and where that respondent was served.
    • a completed Certificate of Last Known Mailing Address form and 1 copy.
    • a completed Military Status Declaration (or Military Status Affidavit) and 1 copy.

When you get to the courthouse, go to the clerk’s office.

  • Ask the clerk if you need the court file or docket sheet (list of what has been filed in your case).
  • Ask the clerk to check one more time to see if the other parent (or other respondent or the OAG) has filed an answer. If the other parent (or anyone else) has filed an answer, you will not be able to finish your case by default. Go back to Step 8.
  • File the Certificate of Last Known Mailing Address and the Military Status Declaration (or Military Status Affidavit). Ask the clerk to file stamp your copy of each form. Bring a file-stamped copy of each form with you to court.

When you get to the courtroom:

  • Tell the clerk you are there and give the clerk your paperwork. Sit down until the judge calls your case.
  • When the judge calls your case, walk to the front of the courtroom and stand in front of the judge’s bench. The judge will have you raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth. Be prepared to quickly tell the judge: who you are, how you are related to the children, what orders you are asking the judge to make and why those orders would be in the children’s best interest. It’s a good idea to write down everything you want to say so you can read it to the judge if you get nervous.
  • The judge will listen to what you say and review your papers. If everything is in order the judge will sign your Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order).
Step 11: File (turn in) the signed order or orders.

After the judge signs your Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order), go back to the clerk’s office.

  • File (turn in) your Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order) and any other orders signed by the judge. Your case is NOT final until you do so.
  • Get a certified copy of your Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order) and any other orders signed by the judge from the clerk while you are there. The clerk may charge a fee for the certified copies. 
  • Turn in the completed Information on Suit Affecting the Family Relationship form to the district clerk's office.
  • If child support was ordered:
    • ask the clerk how to set up a child support account, and
    • ask the clerk to send a copy of the Income Withholding Order for Support to the employer of the parent ordered to pay child support.
Step 12: After your case is finished.

Follow these steps after your case is finished.

  • Send a file-stamped copy of the Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (Parent Custody Order) and any other orders signed by the judge to the other parent.
  • If you were ordered to pay child support and/or cash medical support, learn about payment options here: Texas Attorney General - Child Support Payment Options. If you have any questions, call the Office of the Attorney General Child Support Division at 1-800-252-8014. DO NOT send child support payments directly to the other parent.
  • If the other parent was ordered to pay child support and/or medical support to you but doesn’t pay, contact the Texas Attorney General Child Support Division for help enforcing your order.