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

Child Custody & Visitation

How to quickly respond to a custody case when it is part of a 'Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship' (SAPCR).
Overview

Guide Overview

Warning: The information and forms in this guide are not legal advice and are not a substitute for the help of a lawyer.

This guide tells you about responding to a custody case when it’s part of a “Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship” (SAPCR for short).

Common questions about Child Custody & Visitation

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 a custody, visitation, child support, medical support, and dental support orders for a child.

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 custody papers include:

  • a Citation (a form issued by the court to officially notify the respondent of the custody) and
  • a copy of the Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (the form filed by the petitioner to start the case).

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

  • You can be served in person by a constable, sheriff, or private process server. This means a constable, sheriff or private process server will deliver the Citation and Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship to you in person. You will not need to sign anything.
  • You can be served by certified or registered mail (return receipt requested) by the court clerk, constable, sheriff or private process server. This means the court clerk, constable, sheriff or private process server will mail a copy of the Citation and Petition to you by certified or registered mail. Service by certified or registered mail is valid if you sign the return receipt showing that you received it.
  • 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 the state's citation by publication web site.
  • 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 address by regular mail.
  • You will also be served with (1) any other papers filed by the petitioner at the beginning of the case and (2) any orders signed by the judge at the beginning of the case.

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. 

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 these articles to learn more: Standing Orders, Temporary Orders & Temporary Restraining Orders (TROs)

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 10:00 a.m. If you don’t, the petitioner may finish the custody without you. 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.

  • Option 1: File an answer. If you have been served with the initial custody papers (citation and petition) and want to have a say in the case, you must file a Respondent’s Original Answer form with the court. If you don’t, the petitioner may finish the custody without you. Get answer forms here: Instructions & Forms for Filing an Answer in a SAPCR (Custody) Case.

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

  • 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 not currently available on TexasLawHelp.org.
  • Option 3: Do nothing. If you have been served with custody papers and do nothing, the petitioner can finish the custody 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.

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).

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.

If you file an answer, the petitioner cannot finish the custody case unless:

  • you and the petitioner agree to and both sign a completed Order in Suit Affecting the Parent Child Relationship, or
  • the petitioner gives you written notice of a contested hearing date.

Get instructions and answer form here: Instructions & Forms for Filing an Answer in a SAPCR (Custody) Case.

Filing an answer is free.

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.
  • Your child has a disability.

If you need help finding a family law lawyer, you can:

Instructions & Forms

Warning: The information and forms in this guide are not legal advice and are not a substitute for the help of a lawyer.

These instructions explain how to file an answer in a custody case. An answer form is included. 

Checklist Steps

If you have been officially served with a citation and petition (usually called an “Original Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationshipor something similar), there is a deadline to file your answer.  

  • To determine the deadline, 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 your answer with the court on or before this date at 10:00 a.m. If the 20th day falls on 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.
  • If you are served and do not file an answer on or before the deadline, the petitioner can finish the custody case without any further notice to you. This is called a “default judgment.”
  • You may be able to file your answer late. If the petitioner has not finished the custody case, you can file your answer after the deadline.
  • To learn if the petitioner has finished the case, call the district clerk’s office (where the custody case was filed). Ask the clerk if the judge has signed a final order in the case. If the judge has not signed a final order the case is still pending and you can file your answer late. If the judge has signed a final order the case is finished.
  • If the petitioner has finished the case, talk to a lawyer right away. Depending on how much time has passed, you may be able to file a Motion to Set Aside the Default Judgment. For more information and forms, read: How to Set Aside (Cancel) a Default Judgment.

If you have NOT been officially served, there is no deadline to file your answer. You can file your answer (or waiver of service only form) at any time after the petitioner files an Original Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (the form that starts the custody process) with the court. If you file your answer (or waiver of service only form) now, the petitioner will not need to have you served.

Fill out this answer form.

When filling out your answer form:

  • Print neatly in blue or black ink.
  • Find the cause number and court number on the Original Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship filed by the petitioner. Write the same cause number and court number on your answer.
  • You are the “respondent.” The other side is the “petitioner.”
  • Do not leave blanks. If something doesn’t apply write “not applicable” or “none.”
  • Talk to a lawyer if you have questions or need help.
  • You must include a mailing address on your answer. The petitioner (and anyone else listed as a respondent in the Petition in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship) will get a copy of this form. If you are concerned about the petitioner knowing your mailing address, call the Family Violence Legal Line at 1-800-374-4673 for free advice.
  • Talk with a lawyer BEFORE filing an answer, if you 1) do not live in Texas and 2) do not want a Texas court to have the power to make orders that would impose a personal obligation on you. Such orders could include orders requiring you to pay child support, medical support, court costs and lawyer’s fees. If you file an Answer (or any other pleading) before filing a Special Appearance, you will give up your right to argue that Texas can’t make such orders because you live out-of-state. Ask a Texas lawyer to help you determine if Texas has “personal jurisdiction” over you.
  • Talk with a lawyer BEFORE filing an answer, if your child does not live in the county where the case was filed or has not lived in Texas for at least the last six months (or since birth for an infant).   

Make enough copies of your completed answer form to have a copy for yourself, the petitioner, and each other respondent (if any).

File (turn in) your completed answer form with the court.

  • To file online, go to E-File Texas and follow the instructions.
  • To file in person, take your answer (and copies) to the district clerk’s office in the county where the petitioner filed the custody case.

At the clerk’s office:

  • Turn in your answer form (and copies).
  • Ask the clerk if there is a local standing order that you need to follow or attach to any of your documents.
  • Ask the clerk if there are local rules or procedures you need to know about for your custody case.
  • The clerk will “file stamp” your forms with the date and time. The clerk will keep the original and return your copies. One copy is for you and the other copy (or copies) are for the petitioner and other respondents (if any).

Note: It does not cost anything to file an answer. Filing an answer is FREE.

WARNING! Effective January 1, 2021, once a party to a family law case (like a custody modification case) files an answer, both sides usually will be obligated to exchange certain information and documents within 30 days. Talk to a lawyer about exceptions to this rule. The form is here: Required Initial Disclosures in SAPCRs and Modifications.

WARNING! Effective January 1, 2021, once a party to a family law case (like a custody case) files an answer, both sides usually will be obligated to exchange certain information and documents within 30 days. The form is here: Required Initial Disclosures in SAPCRs and Modifications

See Rule 11 Agreements for information (and forms) about one way to waive required disclosures by agreement. Talk to a lawyer. Otherwise, complete the Required Initial Disclosures form.

Send a file-stamped copy of your answer to the petitioner and each other respondent (if any). If the petitioner or any other respondent has a lawyer, send it to the lawyer instead of directly to the petitioner or other respondent. You can send it by:

  • Hand delivery
  • Email
  • Mail
  • Commercial delivery service (for example FedEx)
  • Fax
  • Electronic service through the electronic filing manager. (Note: This method is required if you electronically file (E-File) this document and the email address of the party or the party’s lawyer is on file with the electronic file manager.)

WARNING! If a judge has signed a Protective Order ordering you not to contact a party, do not violate that order. Talk with a lawyer about your options.

Filing an answer protects your right to have a say in the issues involved in your custody case. Once you file an answer, the petitioner cannot finish the custody case unless:

  1. you agree to and sign an Order in Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship, or
  2. the petitioner gives you notice of a contested hearing date.

Filing an answer does not mean your custody case is over.

To learn more, read the Frequently Asked Questions and Articles included in this TexasLawHelp.org toolkit: I need to respond to a custody case.

Effective for suits filed after January 1, 2021, once a party to a family law case (like a suit affecting the parent child relationship) files an answer, both sides must exchange certain information and documents within 30 days. The form is here: Required Initial Disclosures - SAPCR or Modification(This step is not required if the case is filed by, or against, the Office of the Attorney General Child Support Division). This is required unless the parties agree otherwise, or the court lets you waive it. 

Learn more at Required Initial Disclosures in Texas Civil Cases.

Use our Legal Help Finder to search for a lawyer referral service, legal aid office or self-help center in your area. Check our Legal Clinic Calendar for free legal clinics in your area. Use Ask a Question to chat online with a lawyer or law student. 

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