How to File for Child Custody Pro Se

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Worried about representing yourself in court? Many parents wonder how to get custody of a child without a lawyer, either because of the cost of hiring one or for other reasons. Yet, custody proceedings aren't necessarily the easiest first-introduction to the legal system. If you plan to head into court solo, here's what you need to know:

Pro Se Filing for Child Custody

In legal terms, filing for child custody "pro se" means filing on behalf of yourself. In other words, without the help of a lawyer.

For many single parents who want to file for child custody, but who cannot afford a lawyer, filing for child custody pro se is a viable alternative. Plus, even if you do end up working with a lawyer later, teaching yourself how to go through the process pro se can equip you to be your own best advocate.

Getting Custody of a Child Without a Lawyer

  1. Contact the court clerk. The very first thing you need to do is contact your local family court and ask the clerk how you can obtain the papers you will need in order to file for child custody without a lawyer. In some states, these forms can be printed right from your computer. In other states, you will need to physically go to the courthouse to obtain the paperwork you'll need to file for child custody pro se.
  2. Research child custody laws in your state. Make sure you have a solid understanding of the details, legal hoops, and fine print that could impact your case. This is tedious, time-consuming work, but understanding the child custody laws in your state will have a huge impact on your ability to represent yourself well.
  3. Consider all of your child custody options. Don't just automatically file for sole physical custody because you don't want to live apart from your kids, or because you find your ex difficult to work with. Give consideration to every child custody option that is available to you, and carefully consider what would really be best for your children.
  4. Maintain clear, detailed child custody documentation. Keep a record of each and every visit, phone call, email, and contact between you and your ex, and between your children and your ex. As best as you can, stick to the facts and refrain from using negative or derogatory language.
  5. Pay close attention to all of the deadlines and dates related to your case. Many of the papers you will need to file will require follow-up activities within a given time period, such as 30 days. Do not miss a single deadline. In addition, keep all of your papers and materials organized. This will help you stay on top of the details of your case.
  6. Consider whether you feel confident that you can get custody without a lawyer. Before you go to court, consider whether you feel 100% confident in representing yourself. If you do not, consider contacting Legal Aid to find out whether there are any nearby legal clinics where a paralegal or law student could review your case thus far and give you further direction before going to court.
  7. In court, be polite and respectful at all times. Do not allow the judge to see your anger and frustration. Instead, focus on being pleasant and attentive, and stick to the facts of your case.
  8. Do not give up. Getting custody without a lawyer is difficult, and you're probably going to face some setbacks along the way. Stay focused on your mission and remember that what you are doing is 100% for your kids. This will come through in all you do as you work toward securing custody of your children.
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Article Sources
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  1. District of Massachusetts. Frequently Asked Questions About Pro Se Litigation. United States District Court.

  2. Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau. Determining the Best Interests of the Child. U.S. Department of Health of Human Services. 2016.

  3. Find a Lawyer and Affordable Legal Aid. 2019.