menu

How To Represent Yourself in Family Court: Child Custody

You're not required to have a lawyer when you go to court for child custody. If you choose to represent yourself, you're called a self-represented or pro se litigant.

Before you opt to go this route, see what legal help is available to you. Representing yourself in a child custody case is hard — and the stakes, of course, are high. Hiring a lawyer is often worth the price if within your means. If not, look into legal aid organizations or pro bono lawyers.

Once you've weighed the pros and cons, here's how to represent yourself in family court.

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

Start Building My Case

Focus on negotiations

Even before you represent yourself in court, you'll need to represent yourself in negotiations. Prioritize these discussions — whether they take place informally or in mediation — because reaching an agreement with the other parent can save you time, money and stress.

Present multiple parenting plans and custody schedules to the other parent, and try to anticipate their qualms. As much as you can, set aside personal grievances so you land on what's best for your child.

If your attempts to agree don't succeed and you end up in court, don't give up hope. You can still reach a consensus and end your case early, which is usually the best outcome for the entire family.

Do your research

If you must go to court, make sure you know your stuff. This will not only help you logistically but will also affect the judge's opinion of you.

Familiarize yourself with:

You can do most of your research online these days. If you go to a law library, a librarian may be able to help you.

Once you're assigned a judge, you can sit in on their public hearings to get a feel for their personality and methods.

Gather strong evidence

Evidence is the key to convincing the judge to issue the orders you've asked for. You need proof of whats in your child's best interest — and plenty of it.

Evidence can come in physical form, as is the case with photos, school records, expense reports or parenting journal entries. It can also take the form of testimony, which is spoken evidence that witnesses provide, usually at trial. You might have lay witnesses testify (like family members or coaches) or expert witnesses (like social workers or doctors).

Do not try to use insults, hearsay or unrelated information as evidence. Not only do you need to follow the rules of evidence, but you want every fact you point to paint you as a competent parent.

Understand the court process

When you represent yourself in a child custody case, you have to take on all of a lawyer's duties: paperwork, research, negotiating with the other parent, speaking to the judge, questioning witnesses and more. Be prepared to put in a lot of time.

To officially launch the litigation process, you or your co-parent must open a case, either online or at the courthouse. It doesn't matter who does this because the court has to give both sides fair treatment.

Whoever opens the case is called the applicant and fills out the initial forms saying what they want the court to order. Make your requests thorough and realistic so you don't have to change them later.

The applicant then sends paperwork to the other parent, who is called the respondent. Pay close attention to your court's rules for serving (i.e., sending) paperwork as the process is easy to mess up.

At this point the respondent gets to submit a response to the court explaining their own requests, and they serve it on the applicant.

Once both parents have their paperwork in, the case has its first hearing. This usually lasts less than 30 minutes — just enough time for a judge or other court employee to ask questions about and decide on next steps. (If your case has urgent issues, you could have a hearing sooner.)

The next steps vary by case, but usually parents meet with a dispute resolution professional and try to reach common ground. If unsuccessful, a social worker or similar person may do a custody evaluation.

Along the way to trial, you'll have hearings (in a courtroom) and conferences (in an office) with the judge to give and receive updates. You can submit motions whenever you want to ask the court to do something, such as appoint a lawyer for your child or reschedule a hearing.

At this point, your focus will be on preparing for trial. Pay close attention to the rules and deadlines for discovery (the process of gathering evidence and sharing it with the other parent).

In trial, parents present their evidence and question witnesses — their own witnesses and each other's. Trials have strict rules and procedures, so read up. A custody trial usually lasts one day. Following trial, the judge issues final orders.

Take advantage of family court self-help programs

Family courts usually offer some level of help to parents representing themselves in custody cases. At the very least, your court system probably has a self-help website.

Some courts have staff on hand to help self-represented parents. For example, many California counties have a family law facilitator — a lawyer who provides free assistance. Likewise, counties in Georgia, Massachusetts, New York and other states often have help centers.

Typically, family court self-help programs like these will not provide you with legal advice, meaning they won't tell you what to do in your specific situation. Rather, they can provide broad information and help with basics like filling out forms.

Make sure to check what other resources your court offers people representing themselves in child custody cases, such as language interpretation.

Put your best foot forward

Paying attention to small details shows the judge that you are trying. Wear business clothes to court, show up on time, call the judge "Your Honor," turn in organized paperwork, etc.

Judges usually understand that not every parent can afford a lawyer, and they will appreciate your visible efforts. This can pay dividends if, say, one day you turn in the wrong form or speak out of turn.

Use a child custody app

Representing yourself in family court can feel overwhelming. Use custody technology to keep yourself organized and sane.

The Custody X Change co-parenting app helps you:

Use Custody X Change to stay on top of your case and get what's best for your child.

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

Start Building My Case

Explore examples of common schedules

Explore common schedules

What's your best schedule?

What's your best schedule?

Take the Quiz To Find Out

Join the 60,000+ other parents who have used our co-parenting tools

Organize your evidence

Track your expenses, journal what happens, and record actual time. Print organized, professional documents.

Co-parent civilly

Our parent-to-parent messaging system, which detects hostile language, lets you collaborate without the drama.

Get an accurate child support order

Child support is based on parenting time or overnights in most jurisdictions. Calculate time instead of estimating.

Succeed by negotiating

Explore options together with visual calendars and detailed parenting plans. Present alternatives and reach agreement.

Never forget an exchange or activity

Get push notifications and email reminders, sync with other calendar apps and share with the other parent.

Save up to $50,000 by avoiding court

Write your parenting agreement without lawyers. Our templates walk you through each step.

Start Building My Case

Examples:

Schedules

Long distance schedules

Third party schedules

Holidays

Summer break

Parenting provisions

Scheduling:

How to make a schedule

Factors to consider

Parenting plans:

Making a parenting plan

Changing your plan

Interstate, long distance

Temporary plans

Guides by location:

Parenting plans

Scheduling guidelines

Child support calculators

Age guidelines:

Birth to 18 months

18 months to 3 years

3 to 5 years

5 to 13 years

13 to 18 years

Terminology:

Joint physical custody

Sole physical custody

Joint legal custody

Sole legal custody

Product features:

Software overview

Printable calendars

Parenting plan templates

Journal what happens

Expense sharing

Parenting time tracking

Calculate time & overnights

Ways to use:

Succeed by negotiating

Prepare for mediation

Get ready for court

x

Bring calm to co‑parenting. Agree on a schedule and plan. Be prepared with everything documented.

Start Building My Case

No thanks, I don't need a parenting plan