Pro se means “on one’s own behalf,” so going pro se in a custody case is one means you’ve decided to represent yourself. The decision to represent yourself in court is a big one, especially when you have custody issues on the line. It may even feel like a bad decision. Your children are the most important thing in your life, so why would you risk a family court mishap by going pro se instead of hiring a professional attorney to represent you? But there are several good reasons why you might choose to go the self-representation route.
- You can’t afford an attorney: This is a big consideration for most people. Family attorneys can rack up big expenses quickly, and you may have no choice but to cut costs.
- You know your situation best: You may not be an attorney, but you will be your only client, and who will prioritize your and your children’s interests more than yourself?
- You’re already familiar with courtroom procedures: Child custody cases can be messy and bring up difficult emotions, but many aren’t legally that difficult. If you already know court procedures – from previous cases, professional interactions, or even just a general interest in how proceedings work in your area, you may know enough to get started with.
- You have time and motivation to learn law and procedures: It’s important to know that a judge will expect you to be aware of the laws you’re arguing and how they apply to you, and how to follow courtroom procedures you don’t already know. But if you are willing to learn and have the time to apply yourself, issues in most custody cases are not so complex that a parent can’t handle them.
If you are planning on representing yourself in court, here are some pro see litigant tips to help you succeed.
Understanding Pro Se Ligitation in Custody Disputes
You can’t have too much information as you go into a custody case. Does your ex have an attorney? If so, you might want to reconsider pro se as an option. Two parents who are each representing themselves are on relatively equal footing. Still, when one parent has an attorney, and one is on their own, the unequal balance can seriously skew things in favor of the non-represented parent.
Do you know what your ex is asking for or what they might be claiming against you? Any information you can gather can help you prepare your arguments in your own favor. And of course, anything that you can learn about custody law and courtroom procedure in your area can help you perform more effectively when you go in. Learn about the better parent standard and best interests of the child.
Find out what a parenting plan should look like in your area. In some areas, the courts post videos to help parents in these situations. Your local librarian may be able to help you find books and other materials that can help you prepare. You can also look things up online; make sure you find accurate sources for the information you want.
Was your ex late to pick up or drop off your child? Did they fail to pay child support? Did you argue? Were you contacted by one of their friends or family members inappropriately? Whatever happens in the wake of your separation and before your custody case, document it.
Keep a detailed journal of meetings, interactions, altercations, and discussions. Give each entry a time and date, and document events as soon as possible after it occurs. This can serve as documentation in court. You might also want to take time-stamped, dated photos – of pickups and drop-offs or concerning things like bruises. Save receipts, check stubs, and other related paperwork.
You may want to switch to only text and email communication with your ex for the time being – this can prevent arguments, as it gives everyone involved a chance to take a pause and think about what they’re saying before they reply. It also gives everyone involved a record of the interaction.
Save social media posts – take screenshots and download them to your computer so they can’t just disappear if deleted. Don’t break the law to document your ex – for example, don’t record phone calls secretly in a state that requires two-party consent for audio recordings. The judge won’t appreciate that.
Is your ex a good parent? Do they want at least some custody or visitation? If the answers to both questions are yes, you’re probably not going to get sole custody and no involvement with the other parent. Many states – and courts – prefer joint custody whenever possible.
Be willing to compromise and be reasonable. There are cases where parents do need to fight for sole custody or take away another parent’s visitation – when one parent is abusive, for example, or likely to kidnap the child – and if you’re in one of those cases, you should, of course, do what you need to do.
But if that’s not your situation, don’t try to cut your ex off completely just for spite. It isn’t good for your child, and the judge won’t like it. Post-separation shared parenting is in your child’s best interest. You’re also just much more likely to get what you’re asking for if you’re willing to share and make reasonable accommodations in return.
Just because you’re representing yourself shouldn’t mean that you’re completely alone in the matter. Custody cases are hard, and you’re still going to need various types of support. Let your friends and family know what’s going on if they’re supportive. They may be able to help you study, fill in for you with other responsibilities so that you have time to learn, attend court, and run associated errands, or lend a friendly ear to listen to you talk about your custody difficulties.
You may also want to enlist the help of a legal resource group. While a legal resource group is not made up of lawyers and can’t represent you, they employ legal professionals who can help you connect you with a network of resources, making your custody case much more manageable and pro se-friendly.
Representing yourself with the help of a legal resource group like National Family Solutions is like having a team behind you – you might be the one out in front in the courtroom, but your team helps ensure that you have all the tools you need to succeed there.