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How Do Houston Courts Determine Child Visitation Schedules?

Child custody and visitation rights are often one of the more contentious issues addressed in a Texas divorce proceeding. Ideally, the parents can agree to a schedule that works for them and their children. But when the parents fail to agree, the courts and the law have to step in.

The Standard Possession Order

The Texas Family Code establishes a set of guidelines known as a “standard possession order” (SPO) for determining visitation rights of a non-custodial parent. The SPO is only used when the parties are unable to reach a parenting plan on their own. A judge may also deviate from the SPO depending on the particular facts and circumstances of a custody dispute.

A standard possession order only applies to children to who are at least three years old. In cases where the non-custodial parent–also known as the “possessory conservator”–lives 100 miles or less from the child’s primary residence, he or she is normally entitled to visitation as follows:

  • weekends throughout the year, starting on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Fridays of each month at 6 p.m. and ending the following Sunday at 6 p.m.;
  • Thursday nights during the child’s “regular school term” from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.;
  • the child’s “spring vacation” from school during even-numbered years (e.g., 2018, 2020, et al.); and
  • at least 30 days during the child’s summer vacation, provided the possessory conservator gives notice to the custodial parent by April 1.

Again, these are defaults that can be modified by agreement of the parents, or if a judge finds that a different schedule would be in the “best interest of the child.”

Houston Court Cites Father’s “Neglect” in Reducing Visitation Time

But how do courts apply the “best interest” standard in practice? A recent decision by an appeals court here in Houston offers one example. In this case, a father of two daughters challenged a judge’s decision to reduce the visitation time specified in the SPO to just three Saturdays per month.

The trial judge found that the SPO was “unworkable” and not in the girls’ best interests for several reasons. The court cited a history of the father’s “neglect,” his “failure to care for the children’s hygiene” during prior visits, and his overall inability to “empathize” with his children and put their needs “before his own.”

The appeals court, affirming the trial judge’s ruling, added that the father had also failed to get an apartment large enough to accommodate his daughters and that he failed to purchase “any diapers, clothing, or other items that the children would need to have more extended visits.” Accordingly, the court said it was justified to restrict the father’s visitation to just a few daytime periods each month.

Need Help With a Child Custody Order?

Every child custody case is unique. Many times parents are able to resolve their differences without the need for extended litigation. If you need help with establishing or modifying a child custody agreement from a Galveston family law attorney, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates today.