Whether to hire a lawyer or navigate child custody solo is one of the first considerations for parents who are petitioning the court for child custody. Filing pro se (Latin for “on one’s own behalf”) is the legal term for representing yourself in court without the help of a lawyer. While representing yourself may seem like a cost-saving option, it can be a risky choice, especially if your case is complicated.
In addition to keeping track of deadlines, paperwork, and important details, people who represent themselves are responsible for understanding the laws around child custody in their state. The learning curve can be steep, and it can take a lot of time to wrap your head around.
Here are nine scenarios when you may want to think twice about heading into the courtroom without hiring an experienced child custody lawyer.
1) Your Ex Has a Lawyer
If you already know your ex is working with a child custody attorney, then it may be time for you to consider hiring a lawyer, as well.1 While retaining an attorney doesn’t always mean things will get contentious, it’s understandable if the other parent’s access to legal counsel makes you feel worried.
A child custody lawyer has specific education and experience in matters of family law. Your research and preparation for your case simply can’t compare to a lawyer’s knowledge of the law, strategic maneuvers, and familiarity with the court system.
If your ex has retained legal counsel, that means they have a significant advantage over you. Retaining a lawyer yourself is a way to level the playing field and offer a stronger likelihood that your case will end with a judgment you feel happy with.
If money is an issue, look for free legal aid in your area. Legal aid organizations offer resources and sometimes free representation to low-income individuals.2 In addition, most lawyers offer a free consultation, so it never hurts to call a few to briefly discuss your case.
The last thing you want is to feel as though your case didn’t turn out the way you wanted because your ex hired a lawyer and you did not.
2) The Circumstances of Your Case Have Changed Significantly
Some things that may make your case more complex:
- A parent has remarried or is cohabitating with a new partner
- A formerly cooperative parent has turned combative
- A parent is not abiding by a current custody agreement
- A parent is planning to relocate
- There is evidence of domestic violence, child abuse, or neglect
3) You’re Not Familiar With Family Law
Navigating a child custody case on your own requires a lot of research and planning. Pro se litigants must thoroughly understand the laws that apply to their case. In addition, they are singularly responsible for keeping track of paperwork, deadlines, and court dates.
Attorneys know the ins and outs of the court process. They fill out petitions, consult with clients, mediate with other parties, and attend hearings every day. A lawyer isn’t just a legal expert—they are your advocate. When you retain a lawyer, you can rest a little easier knowing someone is managing your case and looking out for your best interests.
4) Your Partner Changed Their Mind
If your ex has changed their mind about sharing custody, or you suspect that they’re going to try to convince the court that you’re unfit to have the kids overnight, it’s time to talk to a lawyer. While states vary in terms of specific laws, all courts use the best interests of the child standards to determine custody arrangements.3
The other parent generally has to provide a substantial burden of proof that you are unfit or that a change in custody is best for the child.4 Because the risk is so high in situations like these, it’s often best to retain an experienced, objective lawyer.
5) Your Ex Prevents You From Seeing the Kids
If your ex is attempting to interfere with your relationship with your kids, you may want to consider hiring an attorney to represent you. Obstructing your contact with the children, denying parenting time, or canceling at the last minute are examples of behaviors that warrant getting support from a lawyer to help navigate.
Keep detailed documentation of any of these behaviors and share them with your lawyer. Record missed parenting time and the details surrounding it. Keep a file of all correspondence between you and the other parent, including phone calls, emails, text messages, and any other forms of contact.5 These records will be useful as evidence in court.
6) The Court Requires You to Participate in Treatment or Take Classes
If the court is requiring you to take parenting classes, anger management classes, or to enroll in drug or alcohol treatment, then you’re probably already at a disadvantage in the eyes of the court.
In these situations, it’s best to hire a lawyer to represent you. The only exception would be if all parents in your county or state are required to participate in parenting or anger management classes as a standard part of any child custody proceeding. Some jurisdictions require some type of parental education for all child custody cases,6 in which case, you’ll be on equal footing with your child’s other parent.
However, If the court has ordered treatment or classes outside of standard practice, that means the court has already deemed certain behaviors of yours a potential risk. While a lawyer may not be able to get you out of classes or treatment, they will be able to skillfully advocate for you and present your compliance, willingness to improve, and merits to the judge.
7) You Have a History of Drug or Alcohol Use
If you have a history of drug or alcohol misuse, you should be prepared for this to come up in court. In fact, even if you only drink occasionally or smoke pot recreationally in a state where it is legal, it is still possible for your ex to paint you in a bad light.
Fortunately, claims like these against you must be substantiated, which means evidence of substance use must be presented in court.7 If you have been in treatment programs or have been arrested for a DUI (driving under the influence) in the past, these may be offered up as proof. Other times, urine tests or blood tests may be ordered to see whether the parent has recently used drugs or alcohol.
If any of these scenarios are plausible, you may want to consider retaining a lawyer. They will know the best strategy for defending your actions or showing the court what steps you have taken to improve your situation.
8) You Believe Your Children Are in Danger
People who leave violent relationships can face many barriers. In addition to being accused of failing to protect their children when they don’t leave soon enough, they also might be accused of making false allegations or alienating their children from the other parent.8
It’s reasonable to be worried about potential repercussions. Abusers often continue their abuse through the legal process. Known as litigation abuse, this form of domestic violence weaponizes the judicial system against survivors.9
Any time you believe your children are in immediate danger, you should call 911. You might consider a restraining order, as well.
Domestic violence, child abuse, or neglect are situations that always demand qualified legal representation.
9) Your Case Crosses Jurisdictions
Different jurisdictions complicate a custody case because it can be difficult to know which state’s or country’s laws apply to your case. If you and your ex live in different states or even different countries, then you should consider getting a lawyer to represent you and help you navigate the extra challenges.
Seeking counsel is generally recommended for any inter-jurisdictional cases.
While some parents don’t hire a lawyer for their custody cases, certain situations call for legal counsel. A child custody lawyer can be an important advocate, especially if your circumstances are complex or involve abuse in any form. If you’re considering filing pro se because can’t afford a lawyer, consider seeking out your local legal aid organization for assistance.