Harris County District Clerk Marilyn Burgess has rolled out a pioneering electronic solution to process pleas in non-court settings. By establishing a virtual courtroom the judge, the prosecutor, the defense attorney, and the defendant are coordinating through electronic means to complete a judicial plea signed by all parties remotely.
Ms. Burgess’ IT team developed the system, called e-Plea, in collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office. E-Plea allows digital case documents to be sent through the District Clerk’s Office (DCO) electronic document management system so that attorneys and others involved in the case can review the documents and add their signatures, all of it while never leaving our website. E-Plea was first utilized on April 1 and was custom built for Harris County as one of the first digital plea processes from end to end in Texas to take place in a completely non-court setting. This tool works in support of the virtual hearing process piloted by the Honorable Judge Ramona Franklin, of the 338th Harris County District Court. One of the main goals of the virtual hearing is to help preserve social distancing during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“My administration is committed to delivering robust digital solutions for those we serve. E-Plea will help keep the wheels of justice moving during this crisis. The virtual hearing allows all parties to work remotely and safely. Together, these tools mean that the legal system can continue even in dire times. Instead of pressing pause on justice, we’re pushing forward and allowing all parties in a case to come together in a way that is safe, socially distant, and efficient,” says Ms. Burgess.
“Virtual remote jail e-pleas play a significant role in preserving the continuity of justice because it provides a safe way for jail pleas to be taken without subjecting defendants, attorneys, court staff and judges to come into contact with one another and possibly spreading COVID-19.
The sequence for a virtual courtroom using the e-Plea process is as follows:
1. Prior to the hearing, the defense attorney can request a remote virtual “Defense Visit” with their client by setting an appointment with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
2. The DA prepares the documents electronically and files them with the District Clerk’s Office (DCO).
3. The DCO places the pleas on the Attorney Kiosk for Defense Attorney review with the defendant.
4. From a designated area in the jail, the defendant will see and read the electronically prepared plea papers and sign with a tablet computer provided by the bailiff.
5. The deputy district clerk will prepare the judgment for signature by the judge.
6. The day of the virtual hearing, the Sheriff will secure the fingerprint for the judgment.
When it is time for the hearing and judgment, the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney, and court staff meet safely and remotely via video conference. The defendant does not leave the jail.
Hopper notes that, beyond its use during the current crisis, “e-Plea will allow pleas to continue digitally and remotely if needed during future emergencies or under other special circumstances.” She added that the integration of data from e-Plea directly to the judgment will be a future enhancement of the e-Plea process. The integration will minimize data discrepancies and streamline our judgment process.
The DCO has also worked to extend the use of e-Plea to misdemeanor courts
Two days after Hurricane Hanna touched down in Texas, there are thousands who remain without power. For the Houston and Galveston areas, we go lucky with only intermittent rain. But the storm it is a firm reminder that we are just beginning the 2020 hurricane season. With the disaster of Hurricane Harvey and other devastating hurricanes not yet in the distant past, many of our neighbors are reassessing their emergency plans and stocking up on supplies- even if it means doing so in facemasks. In addition to taking these steps, parents who share custody of their children may also want to reassess their parenting plans and visitation arrangements to ensure that they reflect potential natural disasters.
If you already have a natural disaster provision in your own parenting plan, this may be a good time to reevaluate it and ensure that it is still in your family’s best interest. If, on the other hand this type of clause is not included in your parenting plan, you should consider speaking with an experienced League City child custody attorney who can help you decide whether amending your parenting plan is an appropriate course of action in your case.
Emergency Parenting Plan Provisions
Natural disasters are devastating and many ways, including relationships with our children. For instance, a hurricane or tropical storm, could make it impossible to safely transport a child to his or her other parent. In other cases, an emergency could make it necessary to evacuate with a child to avoid emergency weather conditions. Parenting plans can include provisions that specifically address these types of situations and detail what co-parents should do when a disaster strikes. For example, some parents choose to include a provision stating that in emergency situations, the parent who is with the child can fail to comply with the standard parenting time schedule and instead, take whatever actions would be in the child’s best interest, including evacuation or sheltering in place.
In addition to these types of provisions, many parents also choose to include specific steps that the parties must take during emergencies to keep in contact with the child’s other parent. Even when these directions are not included in a parenting plan, however, it’s still a good idea to communicate regularly with a child’s other parent to discuss what action should be taken in the event that communication is interrupted.
Contact an Experienced Child Custody Attorney in League City
Keeping one’s children safe should be a parents primary concern at all times, but especially during a natural disaster. Parents who can do this while also informing the child’s other parent of their plans is highly advisable in these cases. However, what’s this has been achieved and the disasters no longer looming, parents should strongly consider obtaining legal advice about any deficiencies in their parenting plans when it comes to disaster planning.
There is a lot of speculation among experts about whether divorce rates will increase after the pandemic is over and once the courts open up and become fully functional. Many couples choose to avoid dealing with their marriage problems but with recent social distancing, are being forced to interact and engage with each other in different ways now that they are stuck at home together. They're having to engage each other without the prior distractions of work away from home and socializing away from home. For good or ill, couples are having to deal with each other now more than ever.
If there has been a lack of meaningful time in marriage relationships, there are fewer and fewer excuses to avoid your partner. In some cases this may be just the right medicine needed for a troubled marriage. In others cases, the pandemic may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. In many cases stay-at-home orders are further destabilizing at-risk marriages.
COVID Divorces Are Already Trending UP
We are all dealing with much higher stress levels due to the strains of financial, physical, and emotional impacts of the pandemic. There is a growing body of evidence to show that spending more time together in close quarters, can increase the chance of divorce. In other countries who reacted to the first wave of COVID-19 with weeks of strict lockdowns, a spike of record high numbers of divorce filings were the result. And although it is debated whether we are now in a second wave of COVID-19 or if we are only seeing one prolonged wave, there is no doubt that domestic situations that are already at risk of divorce, are only going to get worse as the lockdown continues. Here in League City, Texas during the pandemic, we are seeing more people asking for information about getting a Galveston county divorce or a Harris county divorce. But the question for each couple will be whether they have reached an emotional point of no-return.
Your Emotional Bank Account
Some therapists refer to a couple's relationship like a bank account in which emotional deposits are made and emotional withdrawals are taken. If the couple are depositing loving thoughts, then their emotional bank account is high and they have good feelings towards each other and a healthy marriage. However if they are not meeting each other's needs, or are making bad relationship choices, then with each argument or disappointment, they are making an emotional withdrawal from the bank account.
Many people are facing literal financial ruin as the pandemic eats away at their savings and resources. For the majority of these people, they were already living paycheck-to-paycheck with very little savings for emergency situations. Now that the pandemic has stopped or slowed their paycheck, they are experiencing financial ruin. This is very similar to the effect of the pandemic on their marriage relationships.
The Pandemic Is Forcing the Issue
Even during the best of times, many couples live in quiet misery in loveless marriages. They do so because of social or financial pressures they feel they will have to endure if they get a divorce. They live joyless lives in a broken marriage with little or no savings in their emotional bank accounts. Many are simply biding their time until some event happens when they think the situation will be right, such as when the children leave the home, or when they retire. But they have been able to endure this unhappy existence up to now due to distancing themselves from the other spouse and filling their time with distractions such as going off to work or social interactions with other people. This so far has relieved the tensions of interacting with the other spouse. Now however under the quarantine, the tension is constant and unrelenting. They cannot get away, and there are few distractions.
You Have Choices
If you are in a marriage relationship where the emotional bank account is running very low, then you must decide if the marriage is worth the investment it will take to revive it. Then you must convince your spouse to make the same investment. If you both want your relationship to remain emotionally solvent, you must take immediate and aggressive action. Just like a couple in financial trouble, you should seek the help of a professional advisor. A counselor (marriage, family, and/or individual) should be consulted and you should follow their advice. And you must make daily deposits into that emotional bank account.
However, some accounts are hopelessly overdrawn. When the emotional debts far exceed any hope to getting out of it , then you need admit that your best option for the future is to make a clean break and a fresh start. Financial debt relief is called "bankruptcy" but emotional debt relief is called "divorce". Many couples have reached this stage whether they will acknowledge it or not. If that is the case, then inevitably one or the other spouse will be seeking divorce now or in the future.
For those people, the pandemic alone is probably not the reason for divorce, but it has exasperated the situation or at the very least created an environment where avoiding the problem is not longer bearable . Most people thinking about divorce during this outbreak were already severely overdrawn on their emotional accounts before the pandemic. They are now finding themselves at a point where no amount of deposits will make a difference.
If you have reached this point and are now simply bidding your time until the pandemic ends before seeking a legal divorce, then you should think again. If you feel that you are forced to endure the current situation, then you are probably wrong. There is no telling how long the pandemic will continue and there are likely to be viable alternatives you have not thought of. If the situation has become intolerable you should seek advice from a professional for your League City divorce to help you generate ideas and options- even while the pandemic is going on.
Nobody gets married with the intention of getting a divorce, but for about half of us, divorce is the ultimate end to a marriage. The latest data show that in Texas there are 2.6 divorces per thousand people- this is down significantly from the peak of 5.5 in 1990, but still represents approximately 75,000 divorces! And this rate has been steady for several years. Everyone knows that everything is bigger in Texas. This apparently includes divorces.
Why is divorce so prevalent? Is it because rash decisions are made every day and people tend to make bad choices when they enter into something without thinking it through first? Perhaps. I've seen plenty of that in my career. But if that is true, it still brings up the old "chicken or the egg" type of question. Is divorce so prevalent because people make a rash decisions and marry incompatible partners, or is it because they make a rash decision to divorce as means to solve their general dissatisfaction with their lives?
The answer is of course, different for everyone. But it is true that many people mistake the true source of their unhappiness. They may assume a marriage in distress is the cause of their unhappiness, when in fact, it may be that a troubled marriage is just a symptom of distress that originates from other problems such as financial mismanagement, poor communication skills or past psychological trauma.
Everyone should take a careful look before they leap into divorce because once started, a divorce may be hard to reign back in. There is no doubt that staying married can be painful, but divorce is pretty painful too. So think carefully, and get all the information you can before you decide to divorce so that you know you are going down the path.
If a court appointed attorney is involved in your custody case, a custody evaluation may be in your future. A custody evaluation can have a profound impact on the outcome of your case. Watch this video for my top 10 tips on how to succeed in a custody evaluations.
School year 2020-2021 is just around the corner. But the Coronavirus outbreak is already here. The Texas Education Administration and most local ISDs have put plans in place that include options to choose either traditional "brick and mortar" school building attendance, or virtual education in a home settling ("homeschooling") - or a combination of the two. Many parents are struggling in how to make a choice between these options.
To help parents in the community, we have designed a FREE interactive video decision tree to help those who are still undecided about what is the best option for their children and families. The interactive video decision tree will lead you through a series of guided questions to help you in deciding whether to enroll your child or children in regular school, of if you think the health and safety of your family is best protected by homeschooling them for the time being. The information does not include all factors, nor is it legal advice. But it may help as a starting point for your decision or discussion with other caregivers.
Other resources to help you
In this video, Texas family law attorney Sean Y. Palmer introduces you to an innovative and low cost option to get your divorce or family law matter to court. It’s called “limited scope representation”, and it just may be the future of legal services in Texas.
America is in the grip of the deadliest viral outbreak in a century and it is happening in an election year during the most divisive political eras since the Civil War. It’s a perfect storm.
Swirling in this political maelstrom is the hot wind of social media debates over masks, social distancing, opening up the economy, individual rights and public health. There are a few people blowing hard in one or the other direction. But most of us are standing in the eye of the storm feeling pulled in all directions. It seems like we are being force to make a choice between being safe from a potentially deadly virus or protecting our economic well-being and our right to not have the government dictate our private lives.
It seems sometimes like we are being ask to choose between life or liberty itself.
In the last few months, the government, in the name of protecting lives from the COVID-19 virus, has implemented extraordinary restraints on many of our fundamental liberties. These include the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the First Amendment Right to Assembly ; the right to interstate travel under the Commerce Clause; Privacy rights under the 4th Amendment, and for those lingering in prisons and jails, the right to a speedy trial under the 6th Amendment. Are all these violations of our liberties even legal under the U.S. Constitution?
Yes actually. But only for a limited manner and a limited time.
During public health emergencies, state and local governments have the authority to enact measures to protect the welfare, health, and safety of their citizens. While in normal times these would be condemned as an infringement of our constitutionally protected rights, it is within the authority of the states' police powers under the 10th Amendment for the government to take extraordinary actions in extraordinary times. This clause in the 10th Amendment gives government in times of crisis the power to abridge certain individual rights we would normally expect to be unbreakable.
Specific to our times, the police powers under the 10th Amendment gives states the authority to force isolation for public health purposes. As recent as May 30, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that states do have the power to force isolation on citizens for their health and safety. Chief Justice John Roberts in his concurring opinion recognized the uniqueness of our "extraordinary health emergency" that is “fraught with medical and scientific uncertainties” as well as the highly contagious nature of the virus, stating that leeway should be given to states power to protect health and safety.
But government's police power under the 10th Amendment is not a blank check. The government's restrictions on our liberties must pass the legal test we call "strict-scrutiny" analysis. Government restrictions when challenged in court, must pass the test of being both "a compelling government interest” and also being the “least restrictive means” of achieving the government's legitimate purpose in protecting the public.
And who will be the ones putting the government's restrictions on our liberties to this strict-scrutiny test? It will be your friendly neighborhood lawyer.
Lawyers have a job - it is called vigilance. Thurgood Marshall once said, “grave threats to liberty often come in times of urgency.” This has never been more true than today. Recent history confirms Marshall's axiom that when government is given authority to curtail our rights during times of crisis, it is very hard to get it back from the government when the crisis has ended. One example is the huge expansion of government surveillance of the public after 9/11. Prior to 2001 the government would not be tolerated to do the level of spying on U.S. citizens it was granted under the so called Patriot Act - a law which was passed by Congress on a promise that the spying would only be temporary. Yet 19 years after the terrorist attacks, that surveillance program continues to this day.
General John Stark's famous statement of fierce dedication to liberty, which became the motto for the State of New Hampshire, is "Live Free or Die". But it is doubtful that he meant that to be taken as literally as some do today. Even during a global pandemic, we do not have to make such a drastic choice - nor should we allow anyone to make us think we do. The preamble to the U.S. Constitution reminds us that it is our God-given right to have BOTH life and liberty (and the pursuit of happiness). For life and liberty to both flourish, there must be a delicate balance struck between the necessary restrictions on certain actions during security, health and safety emergencies, and the full exercise of personal liberties we should expect as the norm in all other times. As advocates for citizens who seek to limit government authority, lawyers have a responsibility to be sure the government doesn't abuse or upset that delicate power balance. Attorneys - often maligned and put down by the public, are actually the guardians of citizen power against an overreaching government that would take that power away.
As we try to navigate the rapidly changing environment of the pandemic, where new technologies and treatments will constantly shift the need to restrict liberties we once enjoyed, it is up to lawyers and policy makers and the citizens they serve, to ensure that measures designed to protect us don't permanently reduce our fundamental rights.
If we do not stay vigilant, we may forever lose our liberty. And if that is allowed to happen, then we would compound the tragedy of this pandemic with the travesty of oppression. Instead, lets make clear headed decisions based on the best available information. Let's put aside our selfish desires and fears and think equally about what is good for neighbors and our nation both today and in the future.
We don't have to make a choice to "Live Free or Die". Let's survive today, but let's also preserve our freedoms for tomorrow.
A big decision needs to be made early on in a divorce case- who will take care of the kids? Separated or newly divorced parents have to make tough decisions about child care in the best of times, but with the spread of the coronavirus, those choices are harder than ever. As our Texas Governor moves forward with re-opening the economy, more parents are returning to work. This has made child care decisions more urgent -and desperate-for millions of Texans.
Child care options are decreasing
Most single parents with minor children need to work during the day. In the pre-pandemic days, one common option for many was to have grandparents watch the children while the primary care parent works. However, not every parent is blessed with this as an option. And now, with the spread of the Covid-19 virus and it's high death rate among the elderly, many people who did have this option are now not willing to risk the lives of their own parents by exposing them to grandchildren who often do not display symptoms of Covid-19 and can infect their unwitting grandparents with the virus.
The usual option, if relatives are not available, is to rely on private daycare. But many parents are worried that they will be putting their children at risk by taking them to a daycare center during a pandemic. This fear is spurred by news that Texas has just experienced one of it's most infectious and deadly weeks for Covid-19.
State data shows an increase in coronavirus cases stemming from both large gatherings and child care centers. The state reported 576 positive cases of the coronavirus — 382 staff members and 194 children — in child care facilities as of this week. That’s up from 59 cases in mid-May.
Are Daycare Facilities Safe? Little Guidance from the Government.
Of those facilities that remain open, even at limited capacity, the State's response to the fears of contaminating kids in daycare has been muddled, to say the least.
Just two weeks ago, the government surrendered all existing regulation of safety measures at state-licensed child care centers. As of mid-June they were no longer required to comply with a list of safety precautions that had been in effect since mid-April. That meant centers could decide for themselves if they wanted to check staff temperatures, require parents to drop off their children outside or stop serving family-style meals, according to a previous notice from the state Health and Human Services Commission.
Then, in an apparent reversal this week, Gov. Greg Abbott directed a state health agency to enact new safety standards for child care centers during the coronavirus. However those new standards have not yet been published.
To make matters less clear, individual county and municipal authorities in Texas have been sending mixed messages to citizens about how their local government plans to respond to the recent deadly spike in infections. In Harris County, which includes the City of Houston, Judge Lina Hidalgo has announced plans to mandate masks and return to the stay-at-home conditions imposed this Spring. Meanwhile in neighboring Galveston County, which includes more suburban and semi-rural /industrial areas, Judge Mark Henry has defiantly announced that he won't issue any new government restrictions and said people must rely on their own personal responsibility to stay free from infection.
Ultimately, Parents Must Find Daycare Options and Judge Facility Safety On Their Own
Experts say that daycare is a key piece to reopening the U.S. economy. If a single parent must go back to work and has no other child care options, then choosing among the remaining daycare facilities that remain open in the area may be the only choice. But without clear government guidance, selecting the safest daycare facility for your child is a daunting challenge.
That is why we are offering a checklist of the most important, researched questions to ask a daycare facility before you enroll your child. The checklist is based on expert recommendations and can help you determine if a child care, daycare or daycamp facility is coronavirus ready. No facility can guarantee your child will be 100% safe from infection, but download this free checklist and bring it with you when you visit the facility or ask questions from it when on the phone. Researched from the CDC and other experts, this question checklist will help you pick the safest daycare facility. The Palmer Law Firm is offering this checklist as a free public service.
To download the Daycare Safety Checklist. Please click HERE.
Although Texas continues loosening it's restrictions on local business, the state is experiencing it's highest infection rates both in the number of tested cases and in the number of Texans hospitalized due to COVID-19. Many Texas parents are asking - during this crisis do I have to exchange my child for summer visitation?
July 1st- Expanded Summer Possession Order
With talk of a second wave of illnesses across the country, some municipalities are thinking of re-introducing social distancing restrictions. At the same time, July 1 is coming quickly. For thousands of Texans under a Standard Possession Order, this is the first day of the non-custodial parents' time for their expanded summer possession period. The non-custodial parent is the parent who the child or children do not live with on a day to day basis. Under the standard possession order, which is the custody arrangement most Texans have in their court orders, the parent who the child does not live with gets a 30 day period in the summer. Unless a different time frame was communicated back in April, the default period begins July 1 and ending July 30. However, with the ongoing coronavirus threat - which seems to be growing daily- some parents are wondering if they have to exchange the child on July 1.
Violation of Your Order
The answer is, that unless the court has specifically changed your custody order, you still must do what your current visitation order says. Neither the coronavirus threat, nor any shelter-in-place orders by local government will automatically change your custody orders.
In fact, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order (https://www.txcourts.gov/media/1446470/209059.pdf) that expressly states:
"Possession of and access to a child shall not be affected by any shelter-in-place order or other order restricting movement issued by a governmental entity that arises from the pandemic." (The Supreme Court of Texas, Misc. Docket No. 20-9059, Twelfth Emergency Order Regarding the Covid-10 State of Disaster, dated April 27, 2020).
So, no matter what you hear, or how you feel about the pandemic, if you do not follow your custody order as written, you may face civil or even criminal contempt penalties.
Modify by Agreement
However, if both parents agree that now is not the time to have an extended summer possession period, then in most cases, they can agree to change the possession times this summer. Most standard possession orders allow parents to change visitation by agreement. Just make sure that you review the terms of your order and make sure that any agreement to deviate from the court order that you make with the other parent is documented in writing. This is to protect you by making sure there is no miscommunication or later accusations that there was no agreement.
Modify by Court Order
But what if the other parent does not agree to modify the possession order this summer? The only way to avoid getting yourself into trouble with the law is to file an emergency request with the court to modify the order BEFORE July 1. In it's order, the Texas Supreme Court has stated that this is an option open to parents:
"Nothing herein prevents …courts from modifying their orders on an emergency basis or otherwise." (Id.)
However, if you wait until after June 30 to file your request, you will already be in violation of your custody order at the time you file it, and your chances of it being approved decrease and your chances of being found in contempt of court for violating the existing order increases.
If you are in this situation, you should consult an attorney immediately to file the appropriate paperwork before the June 30 deadline.
The U.S. Economy has lost more than 20 million jobs in April, 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic placing the nation's unemployment rate at it's highest level since the Great Depression. Millions of American are facing economic turmoil and the greatest impact of that will be on children. In this video, Texas Family Law Attorney Sean Y. Palmer talks about steps you should take now if you can't pay your child support obligation because of the loss of income due to the coronavirus crisis.
The COVID-19 epidemic has been a horror show. But as with most disasters, there comes some positive outcomes if you look in the right places. The global pandemic and resulting social distancing is forcing innovation and change in a profession that has been long behind the technological curve. The practice of family law is experiencing a seismic shift in thinking and process. Change causes a lot of tension, especially in the legal field. But this rapid paradigm shift, as stressful as it may be today, will ultimately benefit the family law practitioner and the people they serve.
In early March when stay-at-home orders began to be issued, the business of the courts and all the ancillary meetings and hearings involved with civil cases, such as family law matters, suddenly shut down. Temporary order hearings were rescheduled indefinitely. Mediation sessions were canceled. Clients seeking relief for their divorce or child issues were stuck with out any immediate relief, or even knowledge of when their case would resume. Without the ability to meet face-face, much of the practice of civil law- and the subsection of family law in particular, just..stopped.
The reason the wheels of justice ground to a halt was not because of the viral outbreak directly. It was because of the outmoded ways civil law has been long practiced, and the inability of some practitioners to shift their paradigms quickly enough to the new normal. Many practicing family law are or were deeply entrenched in the old ways of using only person to person communications to conduct business. Although video conferencing and other alternate options had long been available, many family law practitioners eschewed those opportunities and rarely used these options for the two decades or more they have been available.
As a family law litigator myself, I have long lamented the waste that was endemic to the old way of practicing prior to the pandemic. For even the most cursory matters I would have to physically appear in court. This meant I would have to charge my clients travel time to the courthouse and parking. When we got to the court, unless I could find some way to be productive otherwise, I would have to charge my client for the time I spent waiting for our hearing- sometimes for hours. I would try to be productive with my client but it was usually a losing proposition. The actual bench time I would have could be as little as 15 minutes after waiting for several hours. That never sat right with me.
Perhaps even more wasteful was the mediations I had to attend on almost all cases. The mediations themselves were, in most instances highly valuable activities, but the logistics under which they were conducted were wholly wasteful. I would often have to travel several hours to attend mediation across town only to be sequestered to a room where we would never engage with the other party in person anyway. It always seemed so ridiculously wasteful and so unnecessarily expensive.
But now virtual attendance for these appearances is becoming widespread and necessary. This is an exciting development because it will provide clients with much more cost effective and productive way of resolving family law disputes. Trials, hearings, and mediations scheduled precisely and consistently through software are much more likely to be heard on time and with fewer distractions. Judges, attorneys, and mediators will be able to schedule their days and complete their tasks with greater efficiency and will therefore be able to increase their productivity. Clients will not have to pay for ancillary costs such as travel which will increase their overall satisfaction. Clients will also not have to take more time off from work for hearings than necessary that are bumped or delayed due to the difficulty of managing a live court room.
It's not to say that there aren’t many challenges ahead. On the one hand, security and confidentiality of certain communications must be maintained, and on the other hand access to the public and maintaining our open court system must also be maintained. There will need to be new thinking about how to conduct trials in a virtual way. Direct and cross examination of witnesses, the introduction of documentary evidence and impeachment will all need new processes and techniques. If more legal work will be done through technology, there will need to be serious thought put into bridging the “digital divide” so that all socio-economic levels will have access to the new justice system.
But these challenges can and will be overcome. In the middle of a viral outbreak, they simply must. The necessity will drive the innovation as it has throughout human history. And the benefit that will come to judges, attorneys, and clients will be made abundantly clear in the months ahead.
I’m not suggesting that we will never have a live trial again. But the prospect of conducting a full evidentiary trial with a jury of twelve, a full panel of attorneys, a judge, clerk, stenographer and a full public gallery anytime in the near future is a dim possibility. I do not think we will ever fully go back to the old ways of practicing. The use of video conferencing, paperless documents, e-signatures, file sharing and other technologies have long existed but will now become the norm. The practice of law, at least the practice of family law, is at last being dragged into the 21st Century. There will be adjustments, but the family law practitioner will learn that the benefits will far outpace the inconvenience of change. And the one thing the epidemic has done is to force the change. There is really little choice. Those practitioners who embrace and adapt to this new normal will thrive. Those who continue to resist will forever wait for the return of a world that no longer exists.
Finding a divorce lawyer can be a daunting task. For many, divorce is their first experience with the legal system, aside from a traffic ticket or two. It can be tempting to look for a lawyer who markets himself as aggressive. Here are some reasons to think twice.
1. Aggressive does not mean effective
An aggressive attorney often makes few friends in the courthouse. The judges often have little patience for certain aggressive tactics, such as refusing to agree to a new hearing date. An effective attorney will compromise on procedural issues, realizing that a case is won or lost with arguments and facts, not tricks. You will also find that fighting over such procedural issues often does little more than waste money.
2. Aggressive attorneys have a harder time reaching settlements
You may think there is no way that you will settle with your current spouse. Statistics show otherwise; upwards of 90 percent of cases settle before trial. Settling a case is far cheaper than going to trial. Most attorneys charge a higher rate for trial hours, not to mention the extra cost due to preparation, additional hearings, and potential post-trial motions. Since an aggressive attorney will be less likely to compromise, you will have a harder time settling, running up costs that you have to pay. You may think that your spouse will ultimately have to pay your court fees, but typically, each party pays his own lawyer.
3. Aggressive attorneys are often not realistic
A good attorney will help you understand what the court is likely to consider in your case. He will explain the factors the court will consider in determining such things as child support, spousal support, visitation, and property division. In a typical divorce situation, one party will not get all the property, all the time with the children, or unending spousal support. An aggressive attorney may not give you a reasonable assessment of the likely outcome, leaving you unprepared for the final settlement or decree.
4. Aggressive attorneys make it more difficult to work with your ex-spouse in the future
Divorce cases are unlike most other court cases. In other civil or criminal matters, the parties likely never have to see one another, or work with one another, again. Unfortunately, in divorce cases, ongoing issues of child custody, visitation and debt issues often force the parties to continue to work together long after the final paperwork is signed. An aggressive attorney will encourage you to push for more instead of compromise, and it will make it more difficult to work together in the future.
We've heard it all the time: it is important to stay positive . But we seem to suddenly be living in a world where there is very little good news to be positive about. The coronavirus pandemic affects all of us in profound ways. Some matters are just generally inconvenient , some of them are profound. But as the stay-at-home orders continue into multiple months, there is a noticeable fatigue with the situation among the public. Now more than ever, it's essential to stay positive and focus on a better future. This can certainly be a challenge even for the most upbeat of people. Here are five useful tips stay positive in a bad news world.
1. Be grateful.
Experts say that focusing on the positive aspects of your life is a key to feeling happiness. Instead of turning on the news when you wake up in the morning, try practicing expressing gratitude. Begin the day by making a list of all the things that you are grateful for. If you are working be grateful that you are still able to work period if you cannot work, be grateful for your health and for your loved ones. Even the smallest of things like a good cup of coffee are a blessing and by being mindful of how those small good things add up will keep you from focusing on all the negative things.
2. Maintain a daily routine.
Have you found yourself waking up at the "crack of noon" lately? Do you stay up at all hours looking at cat videos? Don't let this chaos rule your life. Have an agenda and stick to it , even if you are not working. If you have to take care of children , then this is even more important- both for you and your kids. Get up early in the morning . Make your bed. Get a good breakfast. Have a plan for the day. Accomplishing tasks, any tasks will make you feel productive and in good mental health. Being consistent will give you a sense of stability and a positive mind-frame.
3. Exercise for mental and physical health
Just because there is a stay-at-home order doesn't mean but you can't get out and exercise. Daily exercise is a must. Spend at least 15 to 30 minutes a day doing a fitness workout or just walking. Endorphins are released in the brain when you exercise and this will improve your mood and make you feel more relaxed. Sunshine, fresh air and being out in nature has been proven to beat depression.
4. Be Organized.
Even though you may have more time on your hands than ever before, you may feel that you are getting even less done. This may be because your mind is cluttered, and your environment often reflects your state of mind. Take time to clean out and organize both your house and your mind. Tackle those stacks of paper, organize your storage, and throw out anything that you haven't found useful. Having an organized environment will make you feel less stressful. And sanitizing your space to prevent the spread of the coronavirus will be much easier if the area is already uncluttered and organized.
5. Social Distance Doesn't Mean Social Isolation
Even though we must practice social distancing, we should make every effort we can using alternative means to stay socially connected. Make a concerted effort to reach out to your family and friends through phone calls, social media, FaceTime, or good old-fashioned letter writing. Cards and postcards are especially welcomed in this time. Try connecting with at least one person outside your home a day.
We are here if you need us.
As the effects of the coronavirus pandemic continue from weeks into months, we hope that you find some comfort in knowing that we are still operational and here to assist you. Whether you are a current client or if you are looking for family law assistance, our team is here for you and will continue to be available to address your concerns. We offer remote consultations and can provide legal services from a distance.
If you need help, you may email me directly at Sean@thepalmerlawfirm.com or call us at 832-819-3529.
Divorces don’t begin when you file paperwork with the court. They don’t even begin when you make your first visit to a lawyer. They don’t begin when move out. They don’t begin when you start making a separate budget for yourself. No. Divorces begin in the heart.
Heart, Mind and Action Stages of Divorce
If the thought of a divorce becomes a daily habit and the idea of remaining together is more painful than the prospect of being apart, then the divorce process has likely started.
There are three distinct stages in a divorce. The Heart Stage, The Mind Stage, and the Action Stage. Intervention such as marriage counseling at any of these stages may prevent the divorce from happening, but as people move from one stage to the next it is increasingly unlikely that anything can be done to prevent the divorce from happening.
The Heart Stage
When you married, you believed that your spouse was the one (non-related) person in the world who care the most about you, who would put you above all others including themselves. If that belief is betrayed, then you will naturally experience great pain at the loss of the hope you had that this is the someone who will be with you forever. When that faith permanently dies, then you are experiencing the Heart stage of Divorce.
In my experience the Heart Stage of Divorce can take place long before the Mind or Action Stage of Divorce- perhaps years or even decades. If a marriage has any chance of being saved then it’s best chance is before the Heart Stage is finished.
The Mind Stage
The Mind Stage of Divorce is when you begin to mentally imagine yourself separated from your spouse and you begin to actually make plans to make it happen. You begin to think about what life will be like and how you will make that happen. This is when you begin to make a mental inventory of things you would want from the house. You will also be thinking about how custody arrangements would work. You may even begin to start searching around for housing. When you seriously start to think about how to make the divorce happen, and what steps you will have to take to make a divorce happen, that is when more than half of the decision is made. It’s is similar to when potential buyers of a house begin to imagine how their furniture will fit into the new house. Experienced realtors know that the sale is nearly made at that point. It is at this stage of divorce that many people seek out the advice of a divorce attorney. They may not be ready to file yet, but they are gathering information they need to make the divorce happened.
If there is no intervention after this stage, it is very hard to keep the divorce from not happening.
The Action Stage
This is the final stage of divorce. This is when action is taken on the plans developed previously. This is when one spouse moves out, or a spouse empties the bank account or when the spouse hires an attorney. At this stage of the divorce it is very unlikely, though not entirely impossible, that the divorce can be prevented. This is because other institutional factors begin to reinforce the decision to divorce. This includes contractual obligations that have been made such as signing a lease, or signing a service contract with a lawyer, or paying filing fees for divorce. These forces anchor the decision and make it harder for it to become more fluid and possible to be reversed. If the divorce is to be stopped at this stage, it would take massive intervention and counseling - which does not normally occur.
There is no one definitive point when a divorce starts, but there are distinct stages that couples go through as they approach the final divorce. As they go through each stage then the reality of a divorce becomes more certain.
If you need more information about this topic, please call 832-819-3529 and we will be happy to speak with you about this, or any other issue related to divorce in Texas.
(Author's Note: Yes I realize the COVID-19 is NOT the flu. But there is no vaccine yet for bad puns.)
With more than a month gone by in the Coronavirus shut-down even the most Pollyannaish , cream puff, "pie- in-the-Sky people who are extolling the virtues of the increased family time are beginning to sour to seeing the same faces over and over again. Even couples who normally get along are feeling the aggravation of day to day 24/7 interaction.
“Togetherness” is all fine and good, but without any chance of real alone time many married couples are considering calling it quits.
And the news is awash right now with predictions of a spike in the divorce rates as a result. Looking at China, many divorce attorneys are anticipating a big increase in the number of divorce filings.
But this has not turned out to be true at least not yet.
Is Staying At Home Actually Promoting Marriage Stability?
In my firm, prior to the mandatory stay-at-home orders, I was working long hours to keep up with the new filings that were coming in over the Holidays. But now the phone calls has slowed to a trickle. This is the same for other family law attorneys.
So does this mean that shelter in place orders are actually reinforcing marriages? I don't think so.
It's too early to draw conclusion about the coronavirus crisis and its impact on marriages In Texas. However I suspect there is a group of people who intended to separate before the lock down and still want to do so but for financial reasons are deciding they can't afford to right now.
Financial Downturns and Divorce Rates
According to the Texas workforce Commission More than a million Texans have filed for unemployment benefits in the last month . That number doesn't include those employed but working reduced hours.
Divorce filings are down and the number is relatively low. Will we see a sudden spike? I remain skeptical. Prior to the 2008 Great Recession, divorce rates were at an all time high . But then when the market crashed the rate dropped 18% and has remained so to this day.
Under the present crisis we're going to see a much longer and deeper recession then even the prior one. If history holds out, we will see you continuing decrease in the divorce filing rate. That may change if the economy bounces back suddenly but although it is certain that people are tired of seeing each other it is not certain if that will prompt them to file for divorce before they have enough money to make that happen.
Alternatives to the High Cost of Divorce
What this amounts to is a lot of miserable people . Not only will everyone be hit hard financially but they will be in sour relationships that will increase the stress . However there are alternatives.
People may try to do their divorce if they feel is uncontested . However the resources that used to be there such as County law libraries no longer available except electronically.
Online mediation is another alternative to resolving conflict but it does not completely address the need to have the agreement converted into a divorce decree and to have that decree approved by the judge. Although the civil courthouse is are closed for anything but emergency issues the courts are allowing divorce orders to be submitted electronically by submission of an affidavit.
Limited Scope Representation
Another creative solution is to hire an attorney who does limited scope representation. This attorney can be hired to get people who do their own voices through the more complicated parts of the divorce process yet not hiring them for full representation. This saves people thousands of dollars because they're only hiring the attorney as needed. However, most attorneys do not except this kind of employment.
There can be no doubt that the Corona virus shut down is changing our family dynamics and the way that we get divorces. There is a lot of uncertainty. And many people already feeling the pressure of loss of income and increased conflict at home are looking for some relief.
There are two at least two lessons to be learned during this time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders. The first is that we have to find new ways to get things done. We still need to do all the things we did before, but we now have to find different ways to do it. People are still people. They still going to need to eat, to earn a living, etc. and yes- occasionally get out of bad marriages. These things can be delayed for a short time, but eventually, necessity (the mother of invention) will force people to find inventive solutions. The other lesson is that we are all connected. What affects one, affects the many. Whether it is a stimulus check, or a neighbor who sewed a mask for you, we are re-learning that we don't have to go it alone. The same holds true of getting access to the justice system. Trying to do your own divorce is daunting but you should not let that prevent you from getting the relief you need. You should think out of the box and work with professionals who are willing to come up with cost effective and creative solutions.
Certain Texas divorces or other Texas family cases benefit from the use of a private investigator. Investigators can be very helpful in obtaining documentation regarding lifestyle, assets, income, roomates, friends, paramour and parent s including their criminal history, work history, demonstrating hidden affluence, locating and interviewing witnessess, and obtaining information regarding abuse or neglect.
The best way to select and hire an investigator is to find someone referred to you by a lawyer. A next best way would be to simply look in they yellow pages- these investigators typically do more family work. At a minimum, the investigator should have a Class A (investigatons only) or a Class C (investigations or security) license from the Texas Department of Public Safety- Private Security Board. Beyond that, there are several advanced certifications which may distinguish one investigator from another such as the designation of Texas Certified Investigators (TCI) or the national designation of Professional Licensed Investigator (PLI) or Certified Legal Investigator (CLI).
When hiring a private investigator, costs are always a consideration. Costs for a private investigator in Texas varies widely across the state. Rates can range from $35 to $150 per hour. A recent survey of the Texas Association of Licensed Investigators found that the average hourly rate of approximately $85.00 per hour with mileage rates at $0.40 per mile. you have the right to a written contract at the time you are contracting the service. The average for an infidelity surveillance will typically run about $3500 to have a real chance of likely success.
In every Texas family law case, be it divorce or a suit affecting the parent-child relationship, there a issues of both law and fact. In cases where it is called for and a private investigator is employed, then the facts become clearer. And everyone wants the the outcome of their case dependent on solid, verifiable facts, as opposed to the vague and uncertain outcome that is dependent on your attorneys’ art of persuasion. Even the greatest attorney in the world wants facts on their side and hiring a private investigator may be the best way to get those facts brought to light.
Incidents of domestic violence are on the rise as victims of abuse are finding themselves ordered to shelter in place with their abusers.
Although the Texas Courts are still conducting hearings and granting orders to protect victims of domestic abuse, there is still an unmet need for immediate shelter for victims. Local women shelters are at capacity. Family, neighbors and friends are called upon to make a very difficult and brave decision to take the victims if no other option is available.
If you are a victim of domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
If you are in an emergency call 911.
For local resources call the Bay Area Turning Point at 281-338-7600.
Many Americans are eagerly anticipating the federal relief check that was promised as part of the $2 trillion economic stimulus package passed on March 27. The legislation, which is the largest aid package in U.S. history, will provide financial assistance in the form of direct payments to most Americans in the amount of $1,200 for single individuals, and $2,400 to married couples earning up to $150,000 with an additional $500 granted per child.
But if your marriage is in the process of being dissolved in one of the estimated 806,400 divorce cases that are currently going on in the United States, then the question arises- who gets the check?
To answer that question you first have to look at your most recent tax filing. The stimulus checks, which are scheduled to go out within three weeks, will be distributed based on your 2019 tax return if you filed already. If not, your payments will be distributed based on your 2018 tax return. For various reasons, many divorcing couples have not have yet filed their returns for 2019, so the IRS will be looking at the return from 2018 for information. This is very significant for divorcing couples because it is likely that their situations have dramatically changed since the 2018 return was filed.
Not only will the previously filed tax return be used to calculate the amount of the stimulus checks, but it will also determine were the checks are deposited or mailed. In past government stimulus payments in 2001 and 2008, the money was delivered both through direct deposits and by physical checks in the mail. The problem for divorcing individuals is that who has control of the bank account and who is living at the last known address will likely have changed since the last filing. If they are involved in a high-conflict case, the spouse who does not have control of the account or the residence runs the risk that the other spouse will take the check and spend it for themselves before there can be an accounting for it.
A proposed solution may be to immediately file or amend your 2019 taxes to "married filing separately" so that you receive a separate check from the IRS. However, I don't think that is a reasonable option at this point. Although the IRS has extended the federal deadline for tax returns from April 15 to July 15, it is uncertain that your filing will be processed by the IRS in time before the checks are distributed. In addition, filing separately usually results in high overall taxes which may offset a large portion of the benefit of the payment.
Another point of dispute may arise in who gets the $500 per child portion of the check. Although there is no official guidance on this, the most likely answer is that it will be the person who claimed the child on the last tax return.
The ultimate answer to who gets part, or all of the stimulus check in a divorce is that the check will be characterized the same as any other marital asset is. In the State of Texas, the stimulus payment will be considered community property and therefore subject to division by the court. If you are in the middle of a divorce case and you want to get on top of this issue, an attorney can help you draft a temporary order that will prevent the stimulus payment from becoming yet another problem to deal with in your divorce. Or if your spouse succeeds in temporarily swiping the benefit and taking the check for themselves, then an attorney can help you balance the equities on final orders by convincing a judge or jury to award you a larger share of other available property, if possible.
The amounts of this stimulus check may not be worth fighting over in court. The best solution is to try to come to an agreement - either to fairly divide the check now, or to hold on to it pending the final division of the whole marital estate. But there is talk of future stimulus checks of larger amounts being distributed in the future based on how long the coronovirus pandemic keeps hurting the economy. A well crafted temporary order now may prevent future check disputes when the financial consequences of who gets the stimulus check are higher.
If you have any questions about this topic or any other issues regarding your Houston/Galveston area divorce, then please contact us. For a limited time we are offering free virtual consultations to anyone going through a divorce or custody issue. Visit us at www.thepalmerlawfirm.com to schedule.
A federal judge overturned Attorney General Ken Paxton's recent ban on most abortions, the Austin American-Statesman reports. Paxton's ban came last Monday after Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order that prohibited all non-life-saving medical procedures so that health care providers can focus on responding to the coronavirus. The order quickly faced a legal challenge from abortion services providers, and was ultimately blocked by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel, who determined the ban violated the constitution. "Regarding a woman's right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly," Yeakel wrote in his decision Monday. "There can be no outright ban on such a procedure."
We are all in a very stressful and fearful time with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus changing the way we live our lives. Many people have been sent home from jobs or limited in interacting in large groups. For our children, schools are closing and many normal extracurricular activities have suddenly stopped. To stop the spread of this highly infectious disease, we are being told to practice “social distancing”- staying away from other people and especially larger groups.
But what about families with custody orders? To date there has been no clear message about how families should address this, and for families who already find themselves in high conflict custody arrangements, the strain will be tremendous and the path confusing. Should periods of visitation with non-primary parents be discontinued along with other “social distancing”? What will be the repercussions if I keep my child from the other parent and how can I avoid them? Here are some clear answers to these questions:
1. Don’t deny visitation to the other parent unless you have a very good reason.
If you are the primary caregiver and the other parent has periodic visitation, you may be tempted to deny the other parent their weekend visitation during this crisis out of general fear that your child may become infected at the other parent’s house. Before you unilaterally disregard your custody order, you should consider very carefully whether you have any real reason to do so. The consequences of violating the custody order may be very real and land you in real trouble with the courts. Our Harris and Galveston County Judges take a dim view of people violating orders- even if the reasons are well intentioned. Denying visits may result in severe consequences for you and may give cause for a change of primary custody to the other parent or even a jail sentence in some cases.
2. Communicate and find common ground for decisions.
Before you decide on your own to deny visitation with the other parent, communicate with the other parent about your fears and try to come to an agreement about temporary modifications to the visitation schedule. You may find they share the same fears about the child being in your home. If your co-parenting has been high-conflict up to this point, however, you may find this very difficult. But you must put your best effort forward.
Even if you have had difficulty in communicating in the past, both parents should try to put that aside (at least until this crisis is passed). One of the best ways to handle the situation is to adopt a business-like and professional attitude to deal with the issues at hand. Try to be focused and avoid emotional reactions. Tell the other parent exactly what you want to talk about and stick to that only. If they try to bring up the past or get off topic remind them of the urgency and importance of coming to agreements on how to handle the visits during this crisis. You both may have different viewpoints of what is the best action to take with regard to keeping your child healthy. With so many conflicting messaging on social media and the mainstream news, it is not surprising you both would have different ideas. The most important thing is to be consistent between the two parents. This situation is like no other and was very likely not conceived of when you made your custody order. You may be called upon to make decisions that are outside the order. Try to find a neutral and reliable source for a tie-breaking resource if you both disagree on how to manage this crisis. Try to agree on one source for recommendations for your child’s safety and agree that you will both use that source for co-parenting decisions that are not covered in your court order. You may agree to follow the advice of the child’s pediatrician for guidance. This is especially important if your child is immunocompromised or has another underlying health condition. Or you could both agree to follow the latest recommendations found on the CDC’s website or the Texas Health and Human Services. Whatever source you decide on , it is important that you both avoid the added conflict and stress of disagreement and you should find as much common ground as possible. One good start in finding common ground may be in that you both express your fears for your child and reaffirming that you each love your child and have their best interest at heart.
3. Think of creative solutions.
What solutions could you come up with that would satisfy each of your concerns about infection and health vs. the legitimate right and need of the child having contact with both parents? If infection is a legitimate concern such as if one parent has been exposed to an infected individual, is it possible to agree to temporarily have visits outdoors and agree to keep the recommended distance from the child- perhaps playing catch, kickball or similar activity? This may sound outlandish in different times, but these are unusual circumstances. Can the parent have Facetime (or increased facetime). Can you agree that the other parent will have additional periods of time with the child to make up for time lost during this crisis?
4. Get an agreement in writing.
Get the agreement in writing and make sure each parent has a signed copy. Insist that each have it notarized if you feel this is necessary. A signed agreement can be used in court to defend yourself if the other parent claims you have unilaterally violated the order.
5. If you can’t come to an agreement, you must file a modification request with the Court.
If you legitimately believe that child is at increased risk of infection if they are allowed visits with the other parent and you can’t agree with the other parent on a modification of the custody arrangement, then you must consider filing a Motion to Modify the Parent-Child Relationship and request emergency temporary orders to discontinue the visits. If you don’t do this, you run a high risk of being held in contempt of court for denying the other parent’s court appointed visitation. You will also have to execute and attach a “significant impairment affidavit” that details why you believe physical contact with the other parent would endanger the child. The standard on getting such emergency temporary orders however is very high. General or undefined fears will not be sufficient. You will have to have special compelling reasons to believe that visits with the other parent will significantly impair the child’s health. Reasons that may be warranted, if proved, could be:
If you have any questions, please contact us at The Palmer Law Firm. We encourage you to schedule a free call with one of our family lawyers, or come see us in person. We have leveraged technology with our online client portal, electronic forms and e-signature document capacities to minimize your need to make trips from your home to advance your legal issue. If you do choose to visit us in person, you can rely on us for clean offices with restrooms and hand washing facilities and hand sanitizer. We are here to help. You can book your free appointment by visiting us at www.thepalmerlawfirm.com or call at 832-819-3529.
Attorney Sean Y. Palmer has over 18 years of legal experience as a Texas Attorney and over 24 years as a Qualified Mediator in civil, family and CPS cases. Palmer practices exclusively in the area Family Law and handles Divorce, Child Custody, Child Support, Adoptions, and other Family Law Litigation cases. He represents clients throughout the greater Houston Galveston area, including: Clear Lake, NASA, Webster, Friendswood, Seabrook, League City, Galveston, Texas City, Dickinson, La Porte, La Marque, Clear Lake Shores, Bacliff, Kemah, Pasadena, Baytown, Deer Park, Harris County, and Galveston County, Texas.