Have you filed anything in the case?
You can't avoid a conservatorship hearing just because you can't afford to be there. From the court's perspective, for example, if you have a cell phone, you can afford the gas to get there. It's not always a realistic perspective, but their attitude is that if the children are not your #1 priority--seriously, #1 meaning drop all but the most survival-oriented expenses in your life--then that tells them something right there about conservatorship.
If you have moved away from the kids, you apparently are OK with the other parent being the primary conservator. And eventually there will be a child support order against you and the longer you avoid it, the higher the potential retroactive child support amount will be. So your best bet is to face this and deal with it. CONSULT WITH A LOCAL ATTORNEY BEFORE YOU DO **ANYTHING** LISTED HERE!!
(1) File an answer right away. That will put you under the jurisdiction of the court. If you want to avoid personal jurisdiction, you can file a special appearance, but in a child custody case, they can move forward without you.
The next steps depend on who brought the suit.
The OAG Child Support Office is not empowered to bring conservatorship suits, but in Texas, all child support orders include conservatorship provisions. Some people are confused by this so I've included instructions for dealing with the OAG here:
OAG BROUGHT THE SUIT
(1) Look for an OAG # or an Office of Attorney General File # on the paper work. Call the phone number they gave you and tell them you will be joining the conference by telephone. Make sure they have your number.
(2) Fax them your last three pay checks (if you have paychecks) or your last three unemployment checks (if you have any) as well as the tax return you filed this year.
(3) On the day of the hearing, make sure you are available at the time they tell you. You might have to wait HOURS before they call you on the appointed day--wait until they do.
THE OTHER PARENT BROUGHT THE SUIT BUT DID *NOT* USE AN ATTORNEY
(1) Call the court coordinator and ask for permission to attend the hearing by telephone. Many courts allow that these days.
(2) Write an affidavit explaining your employment and income situation, attach the documentation from #2 above. Make three copies of this packet of information. On the affidavit, make sure you reference the cause # and style of your case.
(a) Mail two copies to the DISTRICT CLERK in the county where the suit is pending. When you mail it in, include an envelope addressed to yourself with sufficient postage for the clerk to return one copy of the packet to you. You will get back a file-marked copy of what you filed as proof that you filed it.
(b) Mail the third copy to the other parent.
(3) "Attend" the hearing by phone. Let the court know that you want a standard possession order and that you are willing to pay guideline support based on your actual income as evidenced by the affidavit you filed.
(4) You will be severely prejudiced by not being there and by not having an attorney there, but do the best you can.
PRIVATE ATTORNEY BROUGHT THE SUIT
(1) Make and file the packets described above in #2. But mail the third one to the other parent's attorney, not to the other parent.
(2) Call the attorney and try to settle the case without the need for a hearing. If they are willing to accept a standard possession order and guideline support based on your actual income, you can settle this without going to court. Ask the attorney to prepare a Rule 11 agreement memorializing the agreement. Sign it. Get a copy back with their signature on it. Make two copies and send it to the clerk of the court with an envelope for the clerk to send you back a copy. This Agreement is not enforceable until it is filed with the clerk of the court.
(3) If you can't settle, do a telephone hearing.
1. Possibly file a special appearance
2. File an answer
3. You need to attempt to attend - even if its by telephone conference. I highly suggest physically attending. Otherwise it is very possible that you will have a default against you with unfavorable terms.
I offer free consultations and am quite familiar with family judges in Harris County and nearby counties.
Mr. Dick is licensed to practice law in Texas and office located in Harris County. His phone number is 832-207-2007 or 713-510-4500 or his email address is listed below.
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Generally, the Harris County judges don't care for the reasons you can't attend. They expect an attorney to be there to represent you.
I think the other attorneys that answered this questions gave excellent advice - for free.
In Houston, right now, the dockets are FULL and will the recent elections being over - many of the judges are changing January 2011. The attorneys don't know how the new judges are going to run their courts. Plus, Harris County is running in the red and the Harris County Commissioners Court is threatening to take away our Associate Judges which means that instead of 2 judges per court there will be only 1 judge in each courtroom. That means that the court dockets will be swamped. If that happens, I don't know what is going to happen in Harris County. The judges can't handle the current case load. I can't image if their case loads double!
In summary, you can call the court clerk and talk to him/her but that does not guarantee anything. I know from experience that the judge is not going to be "happy" that you are not present. They don't like you being "present" by phone because quite frankly they like to "see" you and observe you. Also, it makes you available for immediate drug and/or alcohol testing if that is a possible issue. And, if money is an issue, if you don't have any money, then you've just helped prove the other side's case!
I've so sorry for the bad news!
If you need an attorney that offers a payment plan, please call PATRICIA BUSHMAN at 713-807-9405. I rent space in her office. Tell her that I sent you. I don't kow what she'd charge. Normally your first appointment is free. She does not like to do phone consultations. You will need to call her office and talk to her staff. She likes to do face-to-face consultations. She has a lot of courtroom experience. Her rates are reasonable. If you are looking at a hearing in the near future, I don't have any idea what her deposit and payment plan would be for you.