Answers to your important legal questions from our panel of experts
Often decisions about family matters have legal consequences. Got a legal question for one of our experts, ask it here.
Here, three of our most trusted attorneys offer their professional opinion on how to handle some tricky situations.
Q: Our 17-year-old daughter has approached us about hosting an after-prom party at our home. We love the idea of having all her friends over to celebrate the special evening. We’re concerned, though, that we could end up with a really big group of kids. Are we responsible for all of them?
A: The short answer, is “yes.” If kids come to your house, you are responsible for them. As a rule, I don’t suggest that anyone host big parties with teens because if problems arise or if there are any injuries, you’re on the hook for it. It’s usually just a bad idea.
The big question is frequently about underage drinking. I’ve seen parents try to “control” parties by allowing alcohol but taking everyone’s keys as they come in the door and then trying to monitor who consumes alcoholic beverages so they don’t drink and drive. There are still problems with that. It’s not legal even if you try to control the consumption and the driving. When there’s a group of teenagers at a party, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. Things can get out of hand, and it’s not just the drunk driving to be concerned about. What if a drunk teen falls down your stairs? Or if a minor gets alcohol poisoning? If you have medications in your home and unsupervised kids get access to them, think of what could go wrong.
If you do decide to go ahead and host the party, ensure it’s not an “open” party. Know who will be coming, and let the kids know you have a no alcohol or drug policy. The number one rule is that you can’t provide alcohol, and you can’t knowingly have it at the party. There’s no “pretend wall” where you can ignore what the teenagers are doing on the other side of the house. If you do choose to provide alcohol directly or you are permitting it in your home, it can give rise to criminal and civil responsibility. I sue drunk drivers for a living, and the question is always, “What was the source of the alcohol?” If you do suspect that a minor has been drinking – even if they showed up at your home and had already consumed alcohol beforehand – you must ensure the kid doesn’t drive.
We all want our kids to enjoy their prom and to have time to celebrate with their friends. Just remember they are still children in the eyes of the law, and as parents we’re liable for any children in our care.
Robert Chaiken, Chaiken & Chaiken, P.C.
Complex Civil Litigation and Crisis Management involving Business, Personal and Serious Injury Claims
Rob Chaiken earned a law degree from the University of Florida in 1991. He is a member of the State Bar of Texas and is a member of the United States District Courts for Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western Districts of Texas and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He is also a member of the American Association for Justice and Texas Trial Lawyers Associations.
Q: I’m concerned that my wife may be an alcoholic and refuses to accept it or get help. We’ve been married 20 years, and I love her and am trying to keep our marriage and family together, but her actions are often out of control and embarrassing to our teenaged children. Is divorce my only answer?
A: It is common to believe that the only way for a court to intervene in your spouse’s parenting is by filing for divorce. However, if you want to try to continue to make a life together, there are options outside of divorce for you to consider. After all, this is not only the mother of your children, but obviously a woman you still care deeply about.
It does not appear that your wife is neglecting the needs of or inflicting any physical abuse on the children due to her drinking. However, you can ask an attorney to file a petition with the court to restrict her access to your children and set rules and restrictions on what decisions she can make for the kids. This is a request I ruled on frequently as a District Judge in Collin County, and it is a relatively simple process in which your attorney will file a petition called a Suit Affecting the Parent-Child Relationship (SAPCR) but not a divorce. The court can then intervene and determine what is in the best interests of the children.
For your wife to be able to exercise her parental rights, a court can require routine testing, formal counseling, and even treatment for your wife’s addiction. For example, in a situation such as yours, the court might restrict her ability to attend school events or to drive the children anywhere until her substance abuse issues are addressed. The court has wide latitude to make any order that is in the children’s best interest.
While the court can order conditions that your wife must meet to retain her rights as a parent – the rights that those without substance abuse issues might take for granted – ultimately, she cannot be forced to comply. She can only be assured that failure to comply will severely impair her parental rights and her access to your kids. In the end, it will be up to her to take the next steps necessary to save your marriage and try to restore her relationship with your children.
Substance abuse of any type will have a corrosive effect on any relationship, but it has a particularly toxic effect on children. Your wife has resisted your attempts to help her by getting help for herself. Do not let her resistance preclude you from seeking support, not only for yourself, but also, and more importantly, for your children.
Judge Chris Oldner, Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson, LLP
Judge Chris Oldner is Of Counsel in the Family Law boutique Orsinger, Nelson, Downing & Anderson, LLP, assisting clients facing life-changing legal matters including divorce, child custody, parental rights, and property division. He served three terms as the presiding judge of the 416th District Court in Collin County. He is also the former presiding judge of Collin County Court at Law 5.
Q: With three kids still at home, we know we need to plan for “What if something happens to us?” What do we need to know and how do we get started?
A: First off, you need a will. If you die without a will in the state of Texas, your estate can be probated intestate. In other words, the State of Texas has a will for you. Depending on who is in your family (spouse, children, parents, siblings, and so on) certain relatives will acquire a percentage of your estate.
A will (or lack thereof) can be the least expensive issue to deal with. Disability and guardianship can be worse for the unprepared. Who will be guardian of your children? Who will be your guardian? Does your family have access to funds they need?
To get started call a lawyer and make an appointment. You may think you can buy a form or copy someone else’s and it will have the same effect. You can buy a “will-in-a-box” or other similar product that enables you to write legal documents for yourself, but an attorney knows the laws, or the implication of some of the language, or how one situation might be solved by one approach but not another. The will or contract might work, and it might not. That’s a large gamble to take with your family’s future.
It’s a good idea to hire someone you are comfortable with, can afford, and can contact easily. It’s not a bad idea to make sure they have malpractice insurance. You can look them up on the State Bar’s website and see if they are licensed or if they have blemishes on their record. You can also ask a friend or family member for a referral. Most estate plans will cost $1,000 to $4,000 for a husband and wife with children. Lawyers traditionally charge by the hour. Other lawyers will charge by the job. For example, a lawyer may charge $1,000 to write a will.
When you sit down with a lawyer, they will ask you about your family and what you want to happen in certain situations. One of the first things they need to know is who will handle things if something happens to you. This can seem overwhelming at first, but it all boils down to this: If you can, get a list together of three people that you trust implicitly. We’ll take it from there.
Colin Smith, Colin Smith Law PLLC
Living Trusts & Trust Administration, Wills & Probate, Living Wills, Asset Protection
Colin earned his law degree from Southern Methodist University. He is a member of the State Bar of Texas, Dallas Bar Association, and the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association. See his complete bio on page 11.