Pro Se Custody: Should You Represent Yourself in Court?

How to decide whether filing for custody pro se is right for you

a child kissing their parent on the nose
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When parents split up, it becomes necessary to create a child custody agreement. Navigating this process with the other parent and through the court system can be complicated. Many choose to delegate this job to child custody lawyers and/or mediators but some parents decide to pursue filing on their own, which is known as filing pro se.

Pro se is Latin for "on one's own behalf" or "for oneself." As a legal term, it effectively means self-representation. Embarking on filing for child custody pro se is a big responsibility and should be decided on only with a complete understanding of what the job entails and after careful consideration of all the pros and cons. In general, most experts recommend that parents proceed with caution when it comes to filing for child custody pro se.

The following questions and tips can help you determine the best course of action for your specific situation. Whatever you choose, going into the process well-informed will likely improve the outcome as well as give you peace of mind.

Before Deciding to File for Custody Pro Se

If you're interested in pursuing filing for child custody pro se, you'll want to take the time to research your state's custody laws to ensure you have the proper level of understanding (and desire) to proceed on your own. In particular, focus on the areas that are most relevant to your situation. Then, to help decide if self-representation is right for you, ask yourself the following questions.

Does My Former Partner Have a Child Custody Lawyer?

Although the justice system permits parents to represent themselves, many legal experts 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 layperson may lack, likely giving them the upper hand.

Can I Afford a Private Child Custody Attorney? 

Each parent has their own unique financial situation, resources, and priorities. Some parents borrow money for an attorney, others may have the savings to cover this expense, while other parents don't have the necessary funds to allocate to attorney fees. Some divorced parents have legal expenses covered by a former spouse, due to a provision written directly into a divorce decree.

Take a look at your full financial picture and determine how much money you could comfortably put towards legal fees. Next, find out how much you are likely to spend should you hire an attorney. Call child custody lawyers in your area to ask for fees and estimated final costs for similar cases. Friends who have gone through this process are good resources for both lawyer referrals as well as a realistic accounting of how much using a lawyer will cost.

When calculating how much you're willing or able to spend on a lawyer, be sure to factor in how much time you would need to spend and how much you value that time. In other words, if you make, say $30 per hour, and will end up spending 100 hours filing your case, you can consider that time as worth $3,000. Then, compare that with what a lawyer will charge.

When parents don't have the necessary funds to comfortably pay for a child custody attorney (or don't want to invest in this service for other reasons), pro se representation might be an appropriate alternative to hiring a private child custody lawyer. This process can be quite expensive and representing yourself will most definitely save you money. However, cost should not be the only consideration as invaluable time with your kids is at stake. Additionally, keep in mind that saving on legal fees now might cost you down the road in a less favorable agreement.

Do I Understand How Court Procedures Work? 

Custody hearings and court procedures, in general, can be confusing for first-timers. Up-to-date knowledge of the inner workings of court proceedings is vital if you want to successfully navigate the child custody legal system. Parents considering pro se representation usually benefit from attending a few court hearings in advance, just to become more familiar with what to expect in court and what proper court etiquette looks like.

Additionally, do as much other research as you can to educate yourself on how court procedures relating to child custody work. Good sources include friends who have gone through the process, online resources, libraries, and your local court clerk.

Any questions you have about proper court procedures can be addressed to the court clerk. It can be helpful to seek that person out and develop a friendly rapport with them so you're comfortable asking questions if and when they come up.

Am I Familiar With 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 the various family law documents they are likely to come across in this process. Take a look at some sample documents (these can be found online or at your local courthouse) to get a true picture of what you'll be working with. Make sure you will be comfortable deciphering and completing these documents.

Ask the court clerk for help identifying the correct forms, where to get them, when they are due, and how they should be submitted. Ask any other questions you may have as well. If, after some research and time with the relevant documents, you still feel comfortable, that's a sign that filing pro se might be a reasonable option for you. If, on the other hand, you feel you're out of your element, this might be an indicator that pro se filing is not ideal for you. Either way, you will have a fuller picture of the child custody process.

Will My Optimal Custody Arrangement Be Hard to Get?

This may seem obvious, but it's important to put time into considering what type of custody arrangement you want and how that aligns with the best interests of your children and the wishes of your children's other parent.

If you feel 100% clear on all of this and are confident that you have a strong case for getting the custody schedule you're asking for, then filing pro se may work fine. Conversely, if you think it may be a stretch or challenging in some way to get your desired result, it may be wise to consult an attorney to get the specialized council your case may warrant.

Do I Have the Time and Patience to File Pro Se? 

There is a lot to learn and weigh before choosing whether to hire a child custody attorney or to represent yourself. Parents thinking about pro se representation should carefully consider whether they have the time, determination, patience, comfort-level, and funds necessary to dedicate to this task before deciding to go it alone in court. 

Another component to consider is how amicable you expect your children's other parent to be and the mental health toll that may come with representing yourself, particularly if there is animosity in the co-parenting relationship. Understand that child custody cases, especially those with some contentiousness, can be stressful and take a lot of time. This reality will be magnified if you are leading your own case. Clearly, these factors could change as your case progresses but these are important elements to keep in mind.

In general, if you and the other parent have a primarily positive rapport and are close to being on the same page with regards to custody issues, the details of your case may come together easier than if you have a more contentious relationship and larger disagreements to bridge. Conversely, the more child custody territory there is to resolve and the more tension there is with the other parent, the more complicated, stressful, and drawn-out these cases tend to become. In those more challenging cases, hiring an experienced lawyer may be warranted and more appealing in terms of your peace of mind.

If you do commit to going it alone, know that you can always call in legal help should you decide you need it.

Are There Other Options?

If financial hardship is the main driver behind your interest in filing pro se, don't give up hope. There are other avenues to get free or low-cost legal help without hiring a lawyer. Depending on your personal situation, you may qualify for assistance from various legal aid agencies in your area. Check with law clinics associated with your local universities, public service agencies, and bar association. Searching "legal aid" and your state online will yield local resources for legal help.

A Word From Verywell

While it can difficult to decide whether to represent yourself in your child custody hearing, trust your instincts on what will work best for you. Take the time to give it careful consideration. The key is being sure that you feel completely confident in your ability to represent yourself and get your desired result if you opt to go it alone.

If you go the attorney route, know that while money spent on a lawyer may feel excessive, it ultimately may lead to a better deal. Conversely, if you are comfortable filing pro se, you are likely to save quite a bit on legal fees and you may feel empowered by having more direct control over every aspect of your case. Either way, it's advisable to speak to a local child custody attorney with experience in cases similar to yours to get their perspective on whether filing for custody pro se is a good decision for you based on your individual situation.

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