How to File for Child Custody Without a Lawyer

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Pro se is Latin for "on one's own behalf." In legal terms, filing for child custody "pro se" means filing on behalf of yourself without the help of a lawyer. Between 2000 and 2019, 25% of civil cases in the U.S. were filed pro se.

There are benefits and downsides to filing pro se. For parents who want to file for child custody but who cannot afford a lawyer, filing pro se is a viable alternative. In addition, when you file without a lawyer, you learn a lot about the legal system, which can equip you to be your own best advocate. 

Still, seeking child custody is a stressful process, and navigating the legal system can require a steep learning curve. Not everyone has the time and emotional bandwidth required for representing themselves in court. If you decide to file pro se, here are some things to keep in mind.

Before You File

Filing for child custody pro se requires research and planning. Parents who head into court solo should be prepared to pay close attention to detail, maintain meticulous paperwork, and understand the laws related to their case. Consider your bandwidth as you evaluate whether going through this process without the assistance of a lawyer is right for you.

Consider Your Options

Before you go to court, think about how confident you feel about representing yourself. If you feel apprehensive, consider contacting a legal aid organization near you. Legal aid organizations offer free legal advice and representation to low-income individuals. They can be a great resource and may be able to give you further direction before going to court.

If you decide to go ahead with representing yourself, give careful thought to all of your child custody options. While sole physical custody may feel like the best option to you because you don't want to live apart from your kids or your ex is difficult to work with, remember that the court will consider the best interests of the child when ruling on custody arrangements. Try to think about your case from the perspective of the court and consider which custody options they might favor as being in your children’s best interests.

Research

Laws vary by state, so be sure to research child custody laws that will apply to you based on where you will be filing. The U.S. Department of Health of Human Services provides best interest standards by state.

In addition to understanding best interest standards, make sure you have a solid understanding of the details, legal hoops, and fine print that could impact your case. Some things that could influence a child custody decision include:

  • Evidence of domestic violence, abuse, or neglect
  • Who has been the primary caretaker up to this point
  • The ability of each party to provide for the child's needs
  • How a custody arrangement would or wouldn't provide continuity for the child
  • The physical and mental health of both parents and children
  • The living accommodations a parent is able to provide
  • The relationship between a child and a parent

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.

File a Petition for Custody

Once you’ve considered your options and familiarized yourself with the laws in your state, it's time to file a petition for custody. Again, laws and processes vary from state to state, but filing a petition is pretty similar in most states.

Fill Out the Appropriate Forms

Begin by contacting the family court clerk to obtain the proper paperwork. Typically, the court with which you must file will be located in the county where your child has lived for the past six months. Be sure to inform the clerk that you are filing pro se so that you access the correct forms. 

Sometimes forms can be accessed online or printed from home. In other cases, you may need to go down to the courthouse to obtain the paperwork in person. Legal aid offices may also have the forms you need.  

Documents you'll likely need include:

  • Proof of paternity or legal parentage
  • Child's birth certificate
  • Any existing orders related to the child

Be sure to read the instructions on the forms carefully. Other forms that may be required to accompany the petition might include:

  • A summons that informs the other parent that they are being sued for custody
  • A notice of appearance if you plan to represent yourself
  • Request for child support

Review your paperwork carefully. Check to see if your documents need to be notarized before you sign them. Once your paperwork is complete and signed, you can pay the fee and file them at the courthouse.

Court fees vary by state, but filing fees are usually several hundred dollars. If you can not afford the filing fee, you may be able to apply to have the fees waived.

Serve the Other Party

After you have filed your paperwork, you'll need to notify the other parent by serving them the court papers. Be sure to read your state's court rules for child custody cases to find out what the exact rules of service are. 

Typically, papers must be served in person. Often, they may be served by a legal adult not related to the case. The rules accompanying your paperwork will state the timeframe in which service must occur. If you are unsure, ask the court clerk for assistance.

Once you have served the other party, you must let the court know. This official notice is called proof of service. Proof of service forms can be obtained from the court. They detail how, when, where, and to whom papers were served.

Keep Good Records

Maintain clear, detailed child custody documentation. Keep a record of visits, phone calls, emails, and any other forms of contact between you and your children's other parent and between your children and the other parent. As best as you can, stick to the facts and keep the language neutral. 

Attend Mediation and/or Hearing

Before mediation or a hearing is scheduled, the court must wait for a response to your motion from the other party. Courts typically offer three to four weeks for the other parent to respond.

If the other party does not respond, the court will usually offer a default judgment, meaning that they will rule in favor of the custody arrangement you have laid out in your petition. Once a response from the other party is received, the court will schedule a mediation or a hearing.

Mediation

Your state may require mediation before jumping straight to a hearing. Unless there is domestic violence or other abuse, mediation can be faster, less expensive, more cooperative, and eliminate the need for a court battle. 

Whether you attend mediation or a hearing (or both), be sure to 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. Keep all of your papers and materials organized so that you do not miss a single deadline.

Hearing

On your court date, arrive on time. In court, be polite and respectful at all times. Proper court etiquette includes addressing the judge as "Your Honor." Never interrupt the judge, and if you are uncertain if you may talk, ask the judge if you may speak. Don't allow the judge to see your anger and frustration. Instead, focus on being pleasant and attentive and presenting the facts of your case.

When the hearing has finished, the judge will issue a decision on your case. A decision is often rendered immediately. They will also issue a written order. Make sure you obtain a copy of the written order and follow the order.

Challenges 

Filing for custody without an attorney comes with certain risks. While representing yourself might save money, it is not right for everyone.

Some risks of filing for custody pro se include:

  • Missing deadlines
  • Missing court procedures or paperwork
  • Missing important details
  • Being treated less fairly
  • Misunderstanding the law or judgment
  • Not having enough time for research and paperwork
  • Pro se litigants are statistically less likely to win than represented litigants
  • You may be ordered to pay the other parent's legal fees if you lose

A Word From Verywell

Filing for custody without a lawyer can be a tedious and sometimes frustrating process but do not give up. You may face some setbacks along the way. Contact your local legal aid organization for support and referrals to resources. Be open to reassessing your decision to work without a lawyer. Some people start out working pro se and then decide to hire a lawyer later. That's perfectly OK. 

Stay focused on the facts of your case and the best interests of your child. When the judge makes a decision on your case, be sure to obtain a written copy and abide by the ruling. 

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10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. District of Massachusetts. Frequently Asked Questions About Pro Se Litigation. United States District Court.

  2. United States Courts. Just the facts: Trends in pro se civil litigation from 2000 to 2019. Published 2021.

  3. USA.gov. Find a Lawyer and Affordable Legal Aid. Updated December 2, 2020.

  4. U.S. Department of Health of Human Services. Determining the best interests of the child. 2016.

  5. Missouri Courts Judicial Branch of Government. Petition for child custody and support.

  6. American Bar Association. Deciding custody. Published 2020. 

  7. Michigan Legal Help. Growing your family: an overview for same-sex parents.

  8. Cornell Law School. Default judgment.

  9. Virginia Legal Aid Society. How to take a child custody or visitation case to court. Published July 10, 2018.

  10. The University of Chicago Law Review. Empirical patterns of pro se litigation in federal district courts