Applying for Child Custody Pro Se in the US: A Step-by-Step Guide
Pro se is Latin for “in your own name.” Legally, filing a “pro se” custody claim means filing on your behalf without the assistance of an attorney. Between 2000 and 2019, 25% of civil cases in the United States were filed under regulation.
There are benefits and drawbacks to filing professionally. For parents who want to file a custody claim but can’t afford to hire an attorney, professional filing is a viable alternative. Plus, when you file without an attorney, you’ll learn a lot about the legal system that can prepare you to be your own best advocate.
However, finding custody is a stressful process, and navigating the legal system can require a difficult learning process. Not everyone has the time and emotions needed to represent themselves in court. If you decide to apply professionally, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Before you apply
Applying for child custody requires research and planning. Parents who go to court alone should be well prepared to pay attention to detail, keep meticulous paperwork, and understand the laws relevant to their case. Consider your bandwidth as you evaluate whether going through this process without the assistance of an attorney is right for you.
Review your options
Before going to court, think about how confident you feel representing yourself. If you feel apprehensive, consider contacting a legal aid organization near you. Legal aid organizations provide free legal advice and represent low-income individuals. They can be a great resource and can give you extra guidance before going to court.
If you decide to continue to represent yourself, think carefully about all of your custody options. While sole physical custody may be the best option for you because you don’t want to live away from your children or your ex is difficult to work with, remember that the court will consider the best interests of the court. the child when deciding on a custody arrangement. Try to think about your case from the court’s perspective and consider which custody options they might prioritize in your child’s best interests.
Laws vary by state, so be sure to research the custody laws that will apply to you based on where you’ll be filing. The U.S. Department of Health Human Services provides state-by-state best-interest standards.
In addition to understanding the standards of best interest, make sure you have a solid understanding of the details, legal loops, and fine print that may affect your case. Some things that can influence parenting decisions include:
- Evidence of domestic violence, abuse or neglect
- Who is the primary caregiver so far
- The ability of each party to meet the needs of the child
- How a guardianship agreement will or will not provide continuity for the child
- The physical and mental health of both parents and children
- Living accommodation that parents can provide
- The relationship between children and parents
It’s tedious and time-consuming, but understanding the child custody laws in your state will have a huge impact on your ability to represent yourself.
File a lien petition
Once you’ve weighed your options and familiarized yourself with the laws in your state, it’s time to file a custody claim. Again, laws and processes vary from state to state, but filing a petition is pretty much the same in most states.
Fill out the appropriate forms
Start by contacting the family court clerk to get the proper paperwork done. Usually, the court to which you must apply will be located in the county your child has lived in for the past six months. Make sure to inform the salesperson that you are applying professionally so that you access the correct forms.
Sometimes forms can be accessed online or printed at home. In other cases, you may need to go to court to get the paperwork in person. Legal aid offices may also have the forms you need.
Documents you may need include:
- Proof of paternity or legal origin
- Child’s birth certificate
- Any existing orders involving the child
Be sure to read the instructions on the forms carefully. Other forms that may be required with the petition may include:
- Summons notifying the other parent that they are being sued for custody of the child
- Notice of appearance if you intend to represent yourself
- Child support claims
Review your paperwork carefully. Check if your documents need to be notarized before you sign them. Once your paperwork is complete and signed, you can pay the fees and file them in court.
Court fees vary by state, but filing fees are typically several hundred dollars. If you cannot afford the application fee, you can apply for a fee waiver.
Serving the Other Side
After you have filed your paperwork, you will need to notify the other parent by serving them the court papers. Be sure to read your state’s court rules for child custody cases to learn what the exact service rules are.
Usually, documents must be served in person. Usually, they can be served by a legal adult unrelated to the case. The rules that go with your paperwork will state the timeframe in which the service must be performed. If you are unsure, ask the court clerk for assistance.
Once you have served the other party, you must let the court know. This formal notice is called proof of service. Proof of service samples can be obtained from the court. They detail how, when, where and to whom the documents were served.
Keep good records
Maintain clear, detailed custody documentation. Keep records of visits, phone calls, emails, and any other communication between you and your child’s other parent and between your child and the other parent. As best you can, stick to the facts and keep the language neutral.
Attend Mediation and/or Hearing
Before scheduling mediation or a hearing, the court must wait for a response to your petition from the other party. The court usually gives three to four weeks for the other parent to respond.
If the other party doesn’t respond, the court will usually issue a default judgment, which means they will make a judgment in favor of the custody arrangement you made in your petition. After receiving a response from the other party, the court will schedule a mediation or hearing.
Your state may require mediation before going directly to a hearing. Unless there is domestic violence or other abuse, mediation can be quicker, less expensive, more cooperative, and eliminates the need for a court battle.
Whether you attend mediation or a hearing (or both), be sure to pay attention to all deadlines and dates relevant to your case. Many of the paperwork you need to submit will require follow-up activities within a certain period of time. Organize all your papers and documents so you don’t miss a deadline.
On your court date, be on time. In court, always be polite and respectful. Appropriate court etiquette includes addressing the judge as “You”. Never interrupt the judge, and if you are not sure if you can speak, ask the examiner if you can. Don’t let the judge see your anger and frustration. Instead, focus on being pleasant, attentive, and presenting the facts of your case.
When the hearing is over, the judge will make a decision about your case. A decision is usually made immediately. They will also issue a written order. Make sure you get a copy of the written order and follow the order.
Filing for guardianship without an attorney comes with certain risks. While representing yourself can save money, it’s not right for everyone.
Some of the risks of applying for guardianship include:
- Lack of deadlines
- Lack of court proceedings or paperwork
- Missing important details
- Being treated less fairly
- Misunderstanding the law or judgment
- Not enough time for research and paperwork
- Professional litigants are less likely to win than statistically represented litigants
- You may be required to pay another parent’s legal fees if you lose
A very good word
Filing for child custody without an attorney can be a tedious and sometimes frustrating process but don’t give up. You may face some obstacles in the process. Contact your local legal aid organization for assistance and referrals to resources. Be open to re-evaluating your decision to work without an attorney. Some people start out working professionally and then decide to hire a lawyer later. That’s completely fine.
Please focus on the facts of your case and your child’s best interests. When the judge makes a decision on your case, be sure to get a copy in writing and follow the ruling.
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