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Understanding Parental Rights, Child Custody, and Visitation Rights in Texas

By Staff
Read Time: 7 Minutes

If you are going through a divorce or thinking about separating from your partner, you may have questions about child custody, parental rights, visitation rights, and maybe even grandparents’ rights. When parents split up, they face a lot of changes and it can be hard for the entire family. Most parents have questions about parental rights and child custody and usually don’t know where to find the answers.

The Basics of Child Custody and Parental Rights

When parents divorce, one of the first things that happens is deciding which parent gets primary child custody and what rights each parent has. Texas courts want children to have a healthy relationship with both of their parents. Courts consider the father’s rights and the mother’s rights, but in the end the most important thing is the child’s best interest.

The Courts and Child Custody

A court order states who will have legal custody. If you don’t have a court order, then a judge has nothing to enforce. In Texas, the legal word for child custody is “conservatorship.” The words "custody" and "conservatorship" describe a parent’s relationship with his (or her) child when there is a court order. For example, your custody rights may allow you to make legal decisions about the child’s education and health care.

Most custodies are joint custody, which is also called “joint managing conservatorship.” With joint custody, parents share making decisions about most issues that have to do with their child. It does not mean the child is with each parent half of the time.

The parent who has primary custody is called the “custodial parent.” The child will spend most of their time with this parent. The other parent is called the “non-custodial parent.” The custody plan will have a schedule for the non-custodial parent’s visits with the child.

A custody plan includes a schedule for the non-custodial parent’s visits with the child.

Making a Child Custody Plan

Most custody orders have a schedule that states how much time each parent gets to spend with the child. The legal term for the schedule is called a “standard possession order,” or SPO. The SPO can change depending on things like the child’s age and how far the parents live from each other. Parents should create a consistent schedule that lets their child participate in school, sports, and other after-school activities. Letting the child spend time with friends and keep doing things he enjoys will be important as the family situation changes.

When parents are filing for child custody, the court usually encourages them to work together to create a child custody plan. If parents can’t agree, the court will decide what is best for the child and create the plan.

A basic child custody plan might include:

  • Who will make day-to-day decisions and how parents will make key decisions together.
  • Who will be responsible for the child’s expenses.
  • Schedules that show when the child will spend time with each parent, including holidays and vacations.
  • Backup plans for times when parents can’t take care of the child during their set time.
  • Guidelines for how each parent will get the child back to the other parent.
  • Guidelines for what to do if one parent moves to another town or state.
  • A plan to help parents deal with conflicts that may come up so they can avoid going to court.

Changing a Custody Plan

It’s possible that sharing custody with your ex will happen for a long time, so at some point you might need to change your child custody plan. Children’s schedules change a lot from preschool to elementary school to high school. Sharing child custody can be hard but remember that you’re doing it because it’s what is best for your child. Parents who have an SPO can agree to any schedule that works for both of them. If they can’t agree, then they must follow the original SPO.

Deciding where a child lives is often determined by a judge.

Deciding Where Children Live

When it comes to parental rights, one of the biggest things to tackle is where the child will live.

When can a child pick which parent to live with?

Under Texas law, children who are 12 or older can have some say in where they would like to live. The court considers the child’s maturity and the family’s needs and then makes the final decision.

What happens if a child doesn’t want to live with a parent?

If a child doesn't want to live with or visit the other parent, find out why. Listen to his concerns and try to understand his feelings. Hopefully you can find ways to work with your child and your ex to make the situation better. Don’t change the visitation schedule without working it out with your ex. If you think there might be a safety issue, get help from a professional counselor or a lawyer.

It may not be easy but try not to take it personally if your child doesn’t want to live with or visit you. Children handle divorce in different ways, and your child is probably working through some big feelings. Here are some tips to help get you through this tough time.

  • Don’t panic or get angry.
  • Keep the lines of communication open.
  • Ask if there is anything you can do to make your child feel more comfortable when you spend time together.
  • Let your child know that when he’s with you, he can call or text your ex.
  • Think about what is truly best for your child.
  • Think about what would happen if you agreed to his request.
Make sure your child knows you are always there to listen even if you don’t live together.

How to Establish Father’s Rights?

Texas law recognizes a husband and wife as a baby’s legal parents. But if you’re a father and not married, you don’t have parental rights until you prove you are the legal father. This is known as confirming paternity. If there is a question about paternity, the court will order you to take a DNA test. You can prove paternity in several ways:

Voluntary Paternity.

Parents can sign a free legal document called an Acknowledgement of Paternity, also known as an AOP. This is the most common way to establish paternity. Parents can sign the AOP before or after their baby is born.

Agreed Paternity Order.

Parents and a judge sign a court order that names the father of the child. The parents must agree to specific legal rights about custody, visitation, child support, and medical support.

Court-Ordered Paternity.

If parents don’t agree, a court order can determine who the child’s legal father is. It can also outline each parent’s legal rights to custody, visitation, child support, and medical support.


To apply for child support services, visit Texas Office of the Attorney General.

Create visitation rights that will work for everyone.

Understanding Visitation Rights

If the court gives sole child custody to one parent, the judge may give visitation rights to the non-custodial parent. The court will determine whether the visitation rights are unsupervised or supervised visitation.

When people think about child visitation rights, many think about visitation rights for the father. Most fathers don’t have primary custody but sometimes the father is the custodial parent. So, it’s important for both moms and dads to understand visitation rights.

Handling Disagreements about Visitation Rights

If you’re having problems with visitations, be sure to keep good records about what is happening. Make notes of the days and times when things do not follow the SPO. If possible, make sure someone else (such as a neighbor) sees the problem you are facing. This information will help if you go to court to try to resolve.

Start by trying to solve the problems in mediation. A mediator can help parents talk through their dispute and agree on a solution. You can find a mediator through a local listings for mediators or dispute resolution centers. If you still can’t agree on child visitation rights, a judge will decide, and you will need a lawyer to help you make your case.

The court will determine whether the visitation rights are unsupervised or supervised visitation.

Understanding Grandparents’ Rights

Grandparents are an important part of a child’s life. Some may even help raise their grandchildren. So, it’s not surprising that they might have questions about grandparents’ rights and possibly want child custody. Grandparents can apply for child custody, but courts typically do not grant them custody unless the child’s parents:

  • Are not living.
  • Have been found unfit to retain custody.
  • Consent to grandparent custody.

Terminating Parental Rights in Texas

If a parenting agreement breaks down and parents can’t follow it, they can take steps to terminate parental rights. A termination case is when the legal relationship between a child and a parent ends. In Texas, parental rights can be terminated only by a court order that a judge signs. Texas Family Code, Chapter 161 explains both voluntary and involuntary termination of parental rights.

A termination of parental rights case can also:

  • Name one managing conservator who has the only right to make decisions about the child.
  • Name a possessory conservator who can spend time with the child but can’t make decisions about him.
  • Name joint managing conservators, where both parents can make decisions about the child.
  • Order child support to end or to be paid.
  • Terminate a child’s right to inherit from or through his parent.
  • Change a child’s name.
Parents should look for legal resources when conflicts can’t be resolved.

You’re Not Alone

Managing child custody can be one of hardest things a parent can face. There are free resources to help with child custody in Texas.

If you have general questions about guardianship, child custody/visitation, the court process, or documents you may need, call (512) 477-6000 or learn more at the Texas Legal ServicesCenter.

Visit Child Support Division of the Office of the Attorney General or call (800) 252-8014 for child support services and programs.

Have a question about strategies for a busy mom?

Contact the team at

This article was written by staff.

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