Pro Se Custody: Tips for Representing Yourself in Court

Decide whether filing for custody pro se is right for you

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We often talk to parents about whether to file for child custody pro se, a legal term also known as 'self-representation.' In general, we recommend that parents proceed with caution when it comes to filing for child custody or child support pro se. The following questions and tips can help you determine the best course of action related to your case.

5 Questions to Ask About Filing for Custody Pro Se

Begin by asking yourself the following questions:

  1. Does my ex have a child custody lawyer? Although the justice system permits parents to represent themselves, we often advise parents to reconsider self-representation if the other parent will be represented by counsel. Parents represented by counsel could be in a more advantageous position. An attorney who understands family law will have specific knowledge that a lay person may lack.
  2. Can I afford a private child custody attorney? Each parent is aware of his/her own, unique financial position and resources. Some parents borrow money for an attorney, while others may possess significant savings. Divorced parents are often fortunate enough to have legal expenses covered by a former spouse, written directly into a divorce decree. If parents are of modest means, pro se representation might be an appropriate alternative to hiring a private child custody lawyer, but cost should not be the only consideration.
  3. Do I have a basic understanding of how court procedures work? Custody hearings, and court procedures in general, can be quite confusing for first-timers. Parents considering pro se representation usually benefit from attending a couple of court hearings in advance, just to become more familiar with what to expect in court and what proper court etiquette looks like. (And remember: any questions you have about proper court procedures can always be addressed to the court clerk. So seek that person out and develop a friendly rapport with him or her.)
  1. Do I have a basic understanding of the required court documents? Mounds of documents can be very intimidating to a lot of people, legal officials included. Parents considering pro se representation should become familiar with various types of family law documents. Again, become friendly with the court clerk and ask for his or her help identifying the correct forms, where to get them, when they are due, and how they should be submitted. 
  2. Do I have the time and resources available to represent myself pro se? As you can see, there is a lot of learn before representing yourself at a child custody hearing. Parents considering pro se representation should carefully consider whether they have the time, determination, and undivided attention necessary to dedicate to this task before deciding to go it alone in court. 

​Pro Se Custody Tips

If you plan to represent yourself in family court, follow these pro se custody tips:

  • Take careful notes during the proceedings
  • Listen very carefully
  • Respond respectfully to the judge and to your ex's attorney 
  • Understand your state's child custody laws
  • Have at least one consultation with a child custody attorney in your state to determine how best to proceed
  • Alternatively, attend a free legal clinic in your area
  • Sit in on at least one court proceeding in advance to get a feel for what happens during a court hearing
  • Enter into all agreements freely or voluntarily

Deciding Whether to File for Custody Pro Se

It can be difficult to decide whether to represent yourself in a child custody or child support hearing. Take the time to give careful consideration to each of the factors mentioned above. Additionally, you should speak to a competent attorney with experience in child custody cases in your state. He or she can help you decide whether filing for custody pro se is a good decision, based on the facts of your case and your individual needs.

Edited by Jennifer Wolf.