Child support services can benefit your family. The state of Texas can use its many enforcement tools to help your children get the money and resources they need. The OAG will establish and enforce a support order (at no cost or very low cost) to collect child support you are owed.
The child support process can be overwhelming if you do not know how it works. We hope the answers to these questions will help you understand and feel more confident about the child support process.
It is important to know that paternity, child support, medical support, custody and visitation will all be addressed when you open a child support case, or when a case is automatically opened because you receive public assistance. The OAG has procedures in place to help you access the child support system safely.
If you are afraid someone will hurt you or your children, you have options.
Abuse by one person against another is a crime. It also can force a parent to make difficult decisions about child support. There are some options to consider when making decisions about child support in light of family violence.
When most people hear the words "family violence," they think of physical violence, but many abusers never physically attack their victims. Abusers find many ways to control victims - by using words, physical violence, sexual violence or threats.
Many abusers use money and resources as a means of control. An abuser can deny a victim access to money, a car or housing, making it nearly impossible to leave or stay away.
Abusers can use threats about child support as a way to maintain control over victims.
You are among thousands of victims and survivors who experience these forms of family violence.
Help is available to sort out the advantages and disadvantages of using the child support system, and your options within that system. This information answers basic questions about child support and leads you to other resources for more information.
Each case is unique, but there are a few basic steps that most cases have in common.
OPENING A CASE
A child support case is opened either as a result of a parent applying for OAG child support services or a custodial parent receiving certain public benefits, such as TANF or Adult Medicaid.
The OAG will ask the applicant for information about the other parent, such as address or employer. This information is used to locate the other parent. The OAG will also gather information about the parent who is applying for services.
Establishment of paternity is a process to make the unmarried biological father the child's legal father. If legal fatherhood has never been established for the child(ren), the OAG will assist in establishing paternity. Paternity can be established by both parents signing a voluntary Acknowledgment of Paternity, by an administrative process in the child support office, or by going to court. DNA testing is free when opening a case with the OAG.
ESTABLISHING A COURT ORDER
In most cases, parents can negotiate their court order in the child support office without going to court. This is not possible in cases that involve family violence or minor parents. In these cases, parents must go to court to establish a court order. The court order will address child support, retroactive child support (if applicable), medical support, custody and visitation.
ENFORCING THE COURT ORDER
The OAG has many enforcement tools to ensure that parents follow the support order. These include credit reporting, license suspension and other measures, up to and including jail time. The OAG is not able to enforce custody or visitation provisions of the court order.
MODIFYING THE COURT ORDER
Sometimes a parent's income changes due to job loss or a promotion and the support order must be modified. Child support cases can be reviewed for modification once every three years. If there is a significant change before three years, either parent can request that the OAG review the case to see if a modification is appropriate. The OAG is not able to modify custody or visitation provisions of the court order.
Many family violence victims are nervous about collecting child support, but want to go forward with a support case because they need the money. Regardless of the situation, many victims feel that both parents should be responsible for the children.
When it is safe to do so, it may make sense to go forward. However, if at any time the consequences of collecting child support outweigh the benefits, consider closing your child support case.
It is important to tell the OAG about safety concerns so that precautions can be taken to help you receive child support services safely. Cases that are flagged for family violence are handled with caution:
If you are not receiving public assistance, contact the OAG to discuss your concerns about safety and child support.
Parents who receive public assistance can learn how to claim a good cause exemption from receiving child support services by referring to the question, Who can I talk to about my safety concerns and claiming good cause?
Any information in OAG records about people who receive or pay child support is confidential. The OAG can only release information in limited circumstances and only to specified persons as provided by law.
However, court documents are public records, and unless your case is flagged for family violence, your address will be printed on court documents that are available to the public. If you are concerned that release of this information could cause danger for you or your children, contact the OAG for an Affidavit of Nondisclosure. The Affidavit of Nondisclosure will make sure that your address is not printed on court documents that are available to the other parent.
For information on how the OAG's Address Confidentiality Program can help you, call the OAG (888) 832-2322 or talk to your family violence advocate.
If you have any concerns about your safety or the safety of your children, ask the child support office handling your case about flagging your case for family violence.
To get the Family Violence Indicator on your case, fill out an Affidavit of Nondisclosure that the child support office provides.
Provide the OAG with documentation of family violence, like a current protective order, police reports or a written statement from a family violence advocate. However, it is not necessary to have a police report or protective order to get a Family Violence Indicator on your case.
If you do not return the completed Affidavit of Nondisclosure to the OAG, your case may not be flagged with the Family Violence Indicator (FVI).
The Family Violence Indicator ensures that your case will not be scheduled for a negotiation conference with the other parent in the child support office. Instead, your case will be scheduled for court. When your case is heard in court, the FVI lets the judge know that family violence is a concern. The judge may include what is called a "nondisclosure finding" in your court order. If the judge makes the nondisclosure finding, your contact information will not be printed on court documents that are available to the other parent. It is important to present the judge with documentation of family violence, such as a protective order, police reports or medical reports.
Let the OAG know about your concerns as soon as possible. You can report family violence when you open your child support case or at any point after a case has been opened. Call the child support office and explain your situation.
Tell OAG staff about your safety concerns every time you contact the child support office.
Contact a child support worker in the child support office handling your case as soon as possible about your safety concerns. Ask how to flag your case for family violence so that it is routed to court rather than to an in-office negotiation hearing.
Either parent can apply for child support services, even if the children do not live with that parent. If you receive notification that a child support case has been opened, do not ignore it. Contact the child support office immediately about your safety concerns and ask about having your case flagged for family violence. This will prevent your address from being printed on court documents that are available to the other parent. It will also route your case to court to avoid a negotiation conference with the other parent in the child support office.
As soon as you receive a notice to appear:
The day before court:
The day of court:
The court order will determine child support (including retroactive support), paternity (if legal fatherhood has not already been addressed), medical support, conservatorship (custody), and visitation based on the law and child support guidelines. After a child support order is final, both parents must comply with the court order; if you have concerns about the terms of the order, it is important to bring them up before the order is final. Changing the order later may require hiring an attorney.
If you have questions about any of these legal matters, a legal advocate may be able to assist you. Texas Advocacy Project attorneys provide free legal services statewide to victims of family violence, sexual assault and stalking. Contact the Texas Advocacy Project at (800) 777-3247.
You can apply for child support services at any time, whether or not your protective order addresses child support. Sometimes child support is addressed in a protective order if the person required to make the payment has a legal obligation to support the child. If you have a protective order, bring it to court, especially if it addresses child support or child custody arrangements.
No. The OAG does not represent either parent in a child support action, whether the action takes place in court or in a child support office.
You have the right to be represented by your own attorney, or you can represent yourself.
If you get TANF now or received welfare (TANF, Tribal TANF, or AFDC) in the past, you can get services from the OAG at no charge.
Custodial parents who have never received TANF, Tribal TANF or AFDC will pay a $25 service fee for each year that they receive at least $500 in child support collections.
Yes, custody and visitation are addressed when a child support order is established. If you have safety concerns about seeing the other parent when you exchange the children or the other parent having unsupervised visits with the children, let the child support office know as soon as possible, and raise these concerns when it comes time to negotiate custody and visitation terms at court. In some cases, the court may restrict or deny a perpetrator access to the children, may order that visitation be supervised, or may order that exchange of the children occur at a neutral place (rather than at the parent's home).
No, federal regulations do not allow the Office of the Attorney General to use child support funding for legal services about custody or visitation disputes. However, the OAG does receive limited special funding to provide some assistance in these matters.
The Texas OAG Access and Visitation Hotline is available toll-free at (866) 292-4636 from 1-7 p.m., Monday - Friday. Calls are answered in English and Spanish. The hotline's companion website www.txaccess.org contains sample materials and tools for assistance with child visitation issues.
The OAG maintains the Access and Visitation Directory, which is an online directory of programs and service providers across Texas designed to facilitate shared parenting after separation or divorce. You can search the directory by zip code, county or service provided.
Some communities have additional resources for parents to resolve custody and visitation conflicts. Check local listings for dispute resolution providers, such as mediators or co-parenting facilitators, or see if there is a county Domestic Relations Office that provides these services.
Even though you are a victim of family violence, if the other person applies for services, the OAG may establish an order requiring you to pay child support or enforce an existing order.
To keep your address confidential, be sure to read the question, Is the information I give the OAG confidential? Noncustodial parents who believe it would be harmful or dangerous for the other parent to know their address should ask the OAG about the Affidavit of Nondisclosure and how to keep addresses confidential.
This section only applies if the child's biological father has never been established as the legal father.
"Establishing paternity" is the process of identifying a legal father when a child is born to unmarried parents. Paternity can be established through the court process or by voluntary acknowledgment using the Acknowledgment of Paternity form.
If you and the other parent were married when the child was born or if you were divorced within 300 days of the child's birth and the divorce decree doesn't exclude the ex-husband as the father of the child, legal fatherhood is automatically established and you do not have to take any additional steps.
There are some good reasons to establish paternity:
However, establishing paternity could expose family violence victims and their children to contact with the abuser. If you fear contact would be dangerous to you and your child, you may not want to establish paternity.
Establishing paternity is a requirement of receiving TANF and Adult Medicaid. To be excused from this requirement, you must claim "good cause not to cooperate."
Be aware that the law allows a child's biological father to claim paternity and ask the court to order paternity testing. You may want to consult an attorney to discuss your options. You can call the Texas Advocacy Project Family Law Hotline at (800) 777-3247 for information.
The OAG cannot set an order requiring a father to pay child support if paternity is not established. Paternity can be established by:
If the parents were married when the child was born, Texas law presumes the husband to be the father. This means that the OAG can establish a support order against the husband or ex-husband.
If the parents were not married at the time the child was born, or if the mother was married to a man who is not the father of the child, the parties may:
The OAG can help either parent establish paternity and enter a child support order. Paternity testing is free when opening a child support case through the OAG.
Many people who apply for TANF or medical assistance do not know that they will automatically be referred for child support services. This is very important to understand, especially if you are a family violence victim.
If you receive TANF or if you and your child receive Medicaid, the OAG will open a child support case and require you to cooperate. If you are a victim of family violence, it is important to learn as much as you can about the process so that you can decide if pursuing child support will be safe for you and your children.
Under federal law, everyone who gets TANF or some forms of medical assistance automatically gets child support services and must provide information to the OAG. This is called "cooperation".
Your cooperation is needed to:
If you believe cooperating with child support services puts you or your children in danger, you can claim a good reason, also known as "good cause" not to cooperate. Use the good cause process to explain why you fear cooperating with the OAG may be dangerous.
Cooperating with the OAG on your child support case is generally required to receive TANF or medical assistance. However, victims of family violence who believe receiving child support services will put them or their children in danger may have a good reason to avoid child support services.
This is called "good cause".
Basically, good cause means that you have shown the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) that there is a good reason to not open a child support case with the OAG.
Some examples of good cause are:
Good cause is different from a family violence indicator. The family violence indicator is a flag on your OAG case that lets child support staff know about your safety concerns. Good cause is a determination by HHSC to exempt you from cooperating with the OAG.
If you do not take active steps to have HHSC excuse you from the requirement of child support, the OAG will open a child support case automatically and will pursue child support payments and health coverage from the other parent.
If you do not claim good cause, but still want some protection as you pursue child support, ask the child support office handling your case how to mark your case for family violence.
If you believe that establishing paternity or collecting child support will put you or your child in danger, you may decide to withhold information when child support staff asks you about the other parent. However, this strategy may have negative consequences.
If you do not cooperate with the OAG, HHSC may reduce your TANF grant. If you lie or provide false information on your assistance application, you may open yourself to a charge of perjury (lying under oath).
The good cause process is there to protect you. If you do not understand how the process works, ask your Texas Works Advisor at HHSC. If that person does not know the answer to your questions, ask to speak with an HHSC Ombudsman.
Because the OAG has many resources at its disposal, the agency may be able to find the other parent without your cooperation. If this could cause you harm, you must let the OAG know and take active steps to protect yourself.
If you are afraid for your safety or the safety of your children, don't wait for someone to ask. Ask your HHSC/TANF caseworker about good cause. Good cause waives the requirement to establish a child support order with the OAG, because doing so would pose a clear safety risk to you or your children.
In order to receive good cause, your HHSC/TANF caseworker will refer you to a family violence specialist at a family violence program. The family violence specialist can recommend by phone to your caseworker that you receive good cause or your caseworker will instruct you to ask the family violence specialist to complete form H1706.
Remember, ignoring child support will not make it go away. As complicated as your life may be, do not ignore mail that asks you to take actions about your child support. If you do not understand a letter, call the person who sent the letter. If you are afraid for your safety, be sure to open and respond as best you can to all mail from the OAG.
If HHSC approves your good cause claim, the OAG will immediately close your child support case. If you have been receiving child support, it is important to know that closing your child support case will also stop all collection and enforcement efforts.
If good cause is denied, you will be required to provide information about the absent parent and can be sanctioned for non-cooperation. If HHSC denies your good cause claim, you can ask for a fair hearing to challenge that decision. The OAG does not work on your case while HHSC is making a decision about your good cause claim.
However, once the decision to deny your good cause claim is final (or you withdraw your good cause claim), the OAG will work the case and expect you to cooperate. If you still refuse to give information or otherwise help with your child support case, HHSC may reduce or stop your TANF benefits, or your medical assistance may be at risk.
If HHSC denies your good cause claim, you have the option of discontinuing TANF and medical assistance or withdrawing your application for assistance.
If your good cause claim is denied, there are still protections within the child support system to help keep your address confidential and minimize contact with the other parent. To learn about these protections and other available resources, review the answer to the question, How can the OAG make collecting child support as safe as possible?
As long as you get TANF or medical assistance, HHSC will contact you about every six months to review your good cause claim. It is very important to stay aware of your good cause status, and to clearly tell HHSC if you are still afraid.
If you are still afraid, make sure your worker understands you are afraid and keeps your good cause claim in place. If your worker stops your good cause claim, and you disagree, talk with your worker's supervisor. You may also ask for a fair hearing.
If your circumstances or those of your abuser change, you may decide that it is relatively safe to collect child support. You can withdraw your good cause claim and the OAG can begin pursuing a support order. Talk to your Texas Works Advisor if you want to withdraw your good cause claim.
After HHSC approves your good cause not to cooperate with the OAG, you may decide that circumstances have changed and that you now want the OAG to pursue child support. If you want to withdraw your good cause claim, contact your Texas Works Advisor if you are still receiving TANF or medical assistance. When HHSC tells the OAG that you withdrew your good cause claim, the OAG can open your support case and start pursuing a support order.