Divorce Process In Harris County
Because of its size, the divorce process in Harris County is different than virtually any other locale. Yes, all of the mandatory steps required by Texas law are required in Harris County, so they will not be discussed here. Instead, I will try to highlight things that are unique to Harris County.
All divorces start out by electronically filing an Original Petition For a Divorce or Respondent’s Original Answer with the District Clerk of Harris County. However, the District Clerk has to process the electronic filings and in many Texas, counties are done the same day that the District Clerk receives the transmission. In Harris County, it may take the District Clerk a week to process the initial filing and issue citation. Once the citation is issued in Harris County virtually all of the citations are served by licensed private process servers instead of the Sheriff or Constable. If a temporary hearing is requested when the divorce is filed then in Harris County it may take the District Clerk up to two weeks to get the actual courtroom clerk, obtain a hearing date, notify the attorney and get the papers issued.
Harris County has 10 Family Law District Courts handling divorces. When a divorce is filed it is randomly assigned to one of these 9 Courts. If the parties have previously been involved in a divorce proceeding in Harris County or involved in a suit affecting the parent-child relationship in Harris County, then the new case is randomly filed in one of the 910 Family Law District Courts and then automatically transferred by the Clerk to the previous Court in the Harris County area.
Each Family Law District Court in Harris-County has an elected Judge who in turn appoints an Associate Judge. So you really have 20 Judges to hear all of the divorce cases in Harris County. The elected Judge can decide which cases to assign to the Associate Judge and which cases to retain. As a practical matter they usually make the assignments at the 9:00 or 10:00 o’clock docket call each day and simply use their own judgment as to how to hear as many cases possible for the day. Because of the caseload most, Harris County, Family Law District Judges require that the case is mediated prior to them actually hearing a temporary orders hearing. They have found that many of the cases are settled at mediation. Once temporary orders are entered or agreed to by the parties or if no temporary orders are requested then the case moves into the working phase in Harris County. Within 30 days after the Petitioner files the Original Petition For Divorce or with 30 days after the Respondent answers or enters an appearance the parties must make certain minimum disclosures, including the following:
- all documents relating to real estate;
- all documents pertaining to any retirement, pension, profit-sharing, or another kind of employee benefit-plan, together w/ the most recent account report for any plan;
- all documents pertaining to any life, casualty, liability, and health insurance;
- the most recent account statement pertaining to any account located with any financial institution including, but not limited to, banks, savings & loans, credit unions, and brokerage firms;
- a preliminary inventory of the parties’ assets and liabilities;
- income information for figuring child support.
Many other documents may have to be produced in your divorce, based upon the particular facts of your case. In Harris County, it typically takes six months to a year before a divorce is finalized. Keep in mind that the only way a divorce is finalized is when a Judge signs a Final Decree of Divorce. And there are basically three ways to get a Judge to sign a Final Decree of Divorce – when the parties agree on each and every issue and sign an Agreed Final Decree of Divorce – when you and your spouse go to a final mediations, sign a binding mediated settlement agreement and subsequently sign an Agreed Final Decree of Divorce or the Court enters a Final Decree of Divorce based on a binding mediated settlement agreement — or your case is tried in open Court, the Judge announces the Court’s decision and then signs a Final Decree of Divorce reflecting the Judge’s decision.
Unfortunately because of the sheer size of Harris County delays are common. There are over 100 Courts in Harris County; they all set matters for 9:00, 10:00, or 1:30. They set matters without regard to attorney’s schedule. It is not uncommon for an attorney to find that he or she has hearings scheduled in three or four Courts at the same time – the attorney cannot control this and must work from Court to Court as quickly as possible. Also, the Judges in Harris County are overloaded. Many times a Judge will think this is going to be an easy day only to come out to call the 9:00 o’clock docket and discover that the very first case is going to take 1, 2 or 3 days; needless to say everything else on the Court’s schedule has to be postponed and reset. Here is my advice about divorce in Harris County. Get your case prepared early – do not waste time thinking (hoping) that you’re soon to be ex-spouse is going to agree to anything – and be patient. Unfortunately, until your divorce is finalized you will have to live in a state of suspended life.
For more information on a divorce in Harris County, contact Houston attorney, John K. Grubb.