How does child custody work in Texas?

Most people think “custody” means which parent has possession of the children most of the time. In Texas, this is not how the term custody is used. Primary custody refers to the parent that has the right to make decisions about the children, such as what doctor they see or which school they go to. The amount of time the children spend time with each parent is a completely separate matter.

Historically, one parent was named Sole Managing Conservator and the other parent was named Possessory Conservator. The Sole Managing Conservator formerly had the exclusive right to make all major decisions regarding the children’s residency, health care, education, and so forth. However, as of September 1, 1995, the legal presumption in Texas is that the parents should be named Joint Managing Conservators. The effect of this presumption is that the rights and powers of a parent are somehow to be divided between both parents or exercised by joint agreement. When Joint Managing Conservatorship is awarded, the parties or the judge must decide and write into the decree how those rights are to be exercised.

Normally, one parent is awarded the right to determine the primary residence of the children. Sometimes this right will be limited by a residency restriction. A residency restriction limits the geographic area where the children may primarily reside. Examples of such restrictions are the State of Texas, a specific county or counties, a particular school district, or even within the attendance boundaries of a certain school. As of September 1, 2009, parents may agree that neither parent be awarded the right to determine the primary residence of the children so long as the children’s residence is limited to a specified geographic area.