It’s no secret that fathers end up paying child support in far greater numbers than mothers do. This is most especially true for fathers who find themselves in Paternity Court under Title IV-D while the State attempts to establish child support.
What most fathers who attend Paternity Court don’t realize is that the State will steal rights to your child from you that you didn’t know you were entitled to and you won’t even realize it.
What is Paternity Court?
Title IV-D refers to the federal law that requires states to manage a public child support program. The Texas Attorney General is the Title IV-D Agency for Texas. In order for the state to establish child support, the state has to first establish paternity in Paternity Court.
–See Title IV-D Services – Tex. Fam. Code Ch. 231
We’re not going to spend any time on actual biological paternity today. Just know that this is where you’ll either be asked to admit that you are in fact the father of the child, or you can demand a DNA test. As a result, you’ll be adjudicated as the child’s legal father.
Except, the state can’t just get a court order for paternity and child support without also setting out your parental rights.
What are your parental rights?
Parental rights that are established in a Paternity Court generally fall within two different categories:
- Basic rights to be informed about your child; and
- Rights to participate in your child’s major life decisions.
Your basic rights to be informed about your child are the sort of rights that you’d expect every parent to have. We’re not covering these in depth, but generally these are the rights to talk to teachers, doctors, dentists, etc., the rights to access your child’s medical and school records, and the rights to receive information and be informed.
Even without fighting, you’re most likely to walk out of Paternity Court with these basic rights. Even in the most hotly contested custody battles, both parents get all of these basic parental rights.
Here’s an excerpt from a randomly selected Paternity Court Order showing all of these basic rights:
–See Rights of Parent at All Times – Tex. Fam. Code § 153.073
Your rights to participate in your child’s major life decisions are the rights that parents spend tens of thousands of dollars fighting for in Court. These are the BIG ones. These include the rights to designate primary residence (aka custody), to consent to psychiatric treatment, to consent to medical treatment, to decide education, and a whole lot of others.
Here’s another excerpt from that same randomly selected Paternity Court Order showing all of these rights to participate in the child’s major life decisions:
These rights don’t have to go to just one parent. Most of them can be shared equally between the parents or exercised independently. If the State is going to secretly steal your rights, then these are the rights being stolen.
Joint Conservatorship vs. Sole Conservatorship
For some reason, everyone thinks that their big goal is to get “joint custody.” If you’ve seen our Child Custody Myths blog, then you know that “joint custody” isn’t a real thing. Forget “custody” and think “conservatorship.” Conservatorship just means the right to make decisions.
A sole managing conservator is granted the right to make key decisions concerning the child without consulting the other parent first. Joint managing conservators must make decisions together and consult with the other parent, to the extent possible, before making any major decisions concerning the child.
—See Appointment of Sole or Joint Managing Conservator – Tex. Fam. Code § 153.005
This is where the State gets sneaky in order to steal your rights. This is where the ol’ bait and switch happens right under your nose.
The Bait and Switch to steal your rights
By default, the Court is required to appoint you as a JMC. The State, however, is going to pretend that you’re being appointed as a JMC, but they’re actually going to take all of your joint rights away. Yes, you’ll be named as a JMC, but your rights are going to be solely awarded to the mother.
Let’s look at the rights from the sample case again because this is most likely the same Order that you’ll be facing.
See how the Order appoints both parents as JMCs? But if we look further, we’ll see that only the Mother is awarded any of the rights to make those big life decisions for the child.
Although it doesn’t explicitly say that the Mother is awarded all of these rights “exclusively,” nowhere else in the Order are any of these rights awarded to the Father. Also, nowhere else in the Order does it say that these rights are shared by the parents. This is in direct violation of Texas law that requires the rights to be designated as independent, exclusive, or with the consent of the other conservator.
–See Court to Specify Rights and Duties of Parent Appointed a Conservator – Texas Fam. Code § 153.071
So, what the Paternity Court did was enter an Order that told the Father that he was a joint managing conservator, but then deprived him of all of the rights that he would have been entitled to as a JMC.
How can you stop the State from stealing your rights?
I wish that I could tell you that the excepts from our sample case above are unique, but I’ve seen this repeated in hundreds of Title IV-D cases from Paternity Court over the years. Believe it or not, a majority of those cases were actually with the agreement of the fathers.
The State will keep stealing the rights from fathers in Paternity Court until fathers get educated and start fighting for their rights.
Here’s how you can fight:
Now that you’re educated on your rights, you’re ready to fight for them in Paternity Court using these three steps:
#1) Don’t agree to an Order in IV-D Paternity Court that does not give you equal conservatorship rights as the child’s mother. Insist on these rights either be via joint agreement, or independent to each of you. Primary residence is the exception as you both likely won’t have the primary residence of the child.
#2) Object on the record in Court, and in writing, if the proposed Order does not apportion these rights correctly and only awards them to the mother.
#3) Appeal the Order to a higher Court if the Judge signs an Order that does not apportion these rights correctly and only awards them to the mother. Appellate deadlines are very short so don’t delay even a day.
Now that you know how the State will try to secretly steal your rights with Title IV-D, you’re ready to appear in Paternity Court so you can protect your parental rights.
–Authored by Matthew L. Harris, Esq.,
Matthew Harris Law, PLLC – Family Law Division
1101 Broadway, Lubbock, Texas, 79401-3303
Tel: (806) 702-4852 | Fax: (800) 985-9479