We’ll continue our focus on the “how to’s” of Dallas family court this week with a look at the process of filing for custody of a child. How does one begin the process? What factors affect the steps that one must take?

In Texas family law, the term “conservatorship” is used to refer to the same thing people generally mean by child custody. When you want to establish conservatorship (i.e., obtain custody) of a child, you have to file a lawsuit asking the court to rule on the child’s conservatorship. The suit will also consider the issues of the child’s parentage, child support and visitation rights. The suit can be filed at the Office of the Attorney General.

Sometimes, parents are still married when a custody dispute arises. Because married parents have equal rights to their children, one cannot stop the other from (for example) moving and taking the child out of the family home. A court order is needed for the police to intervene; such an order can be obtained either as part of a divorce action or through the type of filing discussed above.

When unmarried parents have a child together and dispute custody, the father’s paternity of the child can play a role. Perhaps the father wishes to step forward and prove his paternity in order to seek custody; perhaps the mother wishes to establish his paternity in order to receive child support. Paternity can be established voluntarily if the parents agree, but otherwise a paternity suit may be necessary.

Paternity can be further complicated if the mother is married to another man. That man will be presumed to be the father in the eyes of the law. He may object to a lawsuit requesting that he establish paternity.

Whatever the nature of the dispute, the judge will seek to determine what is in the best interest of the child in making a ruling. Legal representation is not required in order to file a suit for conservatorship, but professional legal advice can help you navigate the challenges of a complex or otherwise disputed child custody case.