Worried about representing yourself in court? Many parents wonder how to get custody of a child without a lawyer, either because of the cost of hiring one or for other reasons. Yet, custody proceedings aren’t necessarily the easiest first-introduction to the legal system. If you plan to head into court solo, here’s what you need to know:
In legal terms, filing for child custody “pro se” means filing on behalf of yourself. In other words, without the help of a lawyer. For many single parents who want to file for child custody, but who cannot afford a lawyer, filing for child custody pro se is a viable alternative. Plus, even if you do end up working with a lawyer later, teaching yourself how to go through the process pro se can equip you to be your own best advocate.
• Contact the court clerk: The very first thing you need to do is contact your local family court and ask the clerk how you can obtain the papers you will need in order to file for child custody without a lawyer. In some states, these forms can be printed right from your computer. In other states, you will need to physically go to the courthouse to obtain the paperwork you’ll need to file for child custody pro se.
• Research child custody laws in your state: Make sure you have a solid understanding of the details, legal hoops, and fine print that could impact your case. This is tedious, time-consuming work, but understanding the child custody laws in your state will have a huge impact on your ability to represent yourself well.
• Consider all of your child custody options: Don’t just automatically file for sole physical custody because you don’t want to live apart from your kids, or because you find your ex difficult to work with. Give consideration to every child custody option that is available to you, and carefully consider what would really be best for your children.
• Maintain clear, detailed child custody documentation: Keep a record of each and every visit, phone call, email, and contact between you and your ex, and between your children and your ex. As best as you can, stick to the facts and refrain from using negative or derogatory language.
• Pay close attention to all of the deadlines and dates related to your case: Many of the papers you will need to file will require follow-up activities within a given time period, such as 30 days. Do not miss a single deadline. In addition, keep all of your papers and materials organized. This will help you stay on top of the details of your case.
• Consider whether you feel confident that you can get custody without a lawyer: Before you go to court, consider whether you feel 100% confident in representing yourself. If you do not, consider contacting Legal Aid to find out whether there are any nearby legal clinics where a paralegal or law student could review your case thus far and give you further direction before going to court.
• In court, be polite and respectful at all times: Do not allow the judge to see your anger and frustration. Instead, focus on being pleasant and attentive, and stick to the facts of your case.
• Do not give up: Getting custody without a lawyer is difficult, and you’re probably going to face some setbacks along the way. Stays focused on your mission and remember that what you are doing is 100% for your kids. This will come through in all you do as you work toward securing custody of your children.
How to Get Sole Custody
Getting full custody is often what parents want to achieve in their custody case, but, many times, parents don’t know what it means or how to get sole custody. Understanding how sole custody works is crucial because you want to be sure that getting sole custody, also known as full custody, is what you really want. In addition, judges like to see both parents involved in raising your child. Getting full custody means you’ll have to show the judge why you’re the only parent who deserves custody.
Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody
How to gain full custody involves a certain strategy, but before you can get full custody, it’s important to know what sole custody is:
• Sole physical custody is where the child lives primarily with one parent, while the other parent has visitation rights.
• Sole legal custody is where one parent has decision-making authority. This includes making major decisions about education, religion, and medical care.
• Sometimes a parent will have both sole physical custody and sole legal custody, although this is the exception, rather than the rule.
• Often, if one parent has sole physical custody, the parents have joint legal custody, which requires discussing major decisions and coming to an agreement.
• Joint custody, or shared custody, can be either joint physical custody, joint legal custody, or both. With joint physical custody, the child lives with each parent for a certain percentage of time, such as part of a week or every other week.
• Each state has its own view of custody, but because courts want both parents involved in the child’s life, most judges want the parents to have joint custody.
How to Obtain Full Custody
Filing for full custody is the first step in the process of getting sole custody. The best case scenario is if your spouse agrees to your having full custody. This prevents fighting for full custody, is less expensive for everyone, and is also less stressful than a full-blown trial. You can file for custody even if you’ve never been married, so long as you have a child in common. Filing for custody if you’ve never been married to the other parent is similar to how to get full custody in a divorce, except there is no marriage. The requirements in cases with or without a marriage are the same, so long as the father has established paternity if the parties were never married.
How Do You Get Full Custody of Your Son or Daughter?
Whether or not you’ll get sole custody depends on several factors in addition to best interests and the inability to co-parent. Some scenarios that give you a better chance of getting sole custody are if:
• The other parent is unable to adequately raise or properly supervise the child
• The other parent has neglected, abused, or abandoned the child
• You have a more flexible work schedule than the other parent, or you’re available to take care of the child more often
• You have a restraining or protective order against the other parent, and the other parent poses a threat to the child
• The child is old enough to express his preference, and your state allows your child to have input about his custody
• The child has special needs, which you are better equipped to handle
• The child has bonded better with you and is thriving in your care
• You are the primary caregiver, and the other parent has minimal involvement in the child’s upbringing
• You are the better parent at helping ensure the child’s educational success
• You have more financial stability than the other parent
• You offer the child a more stable home environment (shelter, food, attention)
• The other parent has serious issues, such as domestic violence, substance or alcohol abuse, or other serious mental health issues that interfere with raising the child.
Is There a Preference of Full Custody for Mothers?
Most states used to award custody to mothers more often than to fathers. Now, almost every state has laws allowing both parents to get custody. As many fathers know, however, some judges still believe the mother should be the custodial parent. Some states are better than others in allowing either you or your spouse to have an equal chance of getting full custody. If you’re seeking sole custody, you should hire an experienced family lawyer. Custody is too important to handle by yourself.
Dos and Don’ts for Winning Child Custody
These dos and don’ts will help you present yourself to the courts in the best light and help you win your child custody case:
• Do show a willingness to work with your ex: Some parents have actually lost child custody because of their demonstrated unwillingness to collaborate with the other parent. So remember that while you may not like your ex, they are a part of your kids’ lives, and you need to show the family court that you’re willing to work together.
• Do exercise your parental rights: If you’ve been granted visitation rights with your kids, take advantage of it. Spend as much time with them as you can, and make sure that you’re doing regular, everyday things—including homework and chores.
• Do request an in-home custody evaluation: This can be extremely helpful, especially if you’re concerned that your ex will try to present a negative impression of your home life.
• Do be aware that perception is everything: One of the hardest things to grasp in a custody battle is the fact that it doesn’t really matter if what is being said about you is true or not; what matters is whether the court believes they’re true. Do everything you can to present yourself to the court as a competent, involved, loving parent. This includes arriving on time, dressing for court, and demonstrating proper courtroom etiquette in front of the judge.
• Do teach yourself about family law: Read up on the child custody laws in your state so that you will know in advance what to expect.
• Do prepare documentation: In situations where you honestly believe your children would be unsafe with the other parent—for example, because he or she has a history of physical abuse—you should carefully document your interactions with your ex, as well as his or her interactions with your children. Be aware, though, that the other parent may feel the same way about you and may be preparing similar documentation for the courts.
• Do work with an experienced child custody lawyer: Even if you don’t think you can afford a lawyer, set up a free consultation to discuss your options.
• Don’t talk about your ex negatively to your kids: In front of your kids, try to keep your opinions and feelings about your ex to yourself. Vent your frustration to a trusted friend, instead.
• Don’t arrive late for visits or pickups: Little things like showing up late can be used to create a negative impression of your commitment.
• Don’t make a habit of rescheduling time with your kids: Repeatedly rescheduling your parenting time could make it appear to the court that you’re just filing for custody out of spite not because you really want custody. So make sure you’re there when you say you will be so that your ex can’t present a documented pattern to the court that reflects negatively on you.
• Don’t abuse alcohol or drugs, especially when you’re with your kids: Here’s something else that could be documented and used against you. Make sure there’s not even the suggestion that you’re doing something that would put your kids at risk.
• Don’t refuse to do anything the court is asking of you: This is your time to show the courts how committed you are. So if they require you to take parenting classes or seek counseling, do so immediately. View it as an opportunity to demonstrate just how far you’re willing to go for your kids.
• Don’t involve your children in the court case: You may be tempted to share the details of the case with your kids, but it’s important to let them be kids right now and not place the burden of adult issues on their shoulders.
• Don’t invent negative stories in an attempt to win custody: Never come up with unfounded allegations of abuse or exaggerate your ex’s shortcomings in order to win custody. Any lies you present will come back and be used against you in court. To get this transfer done right and to protect yourself in the future, you’ll need to draw up an agreement between you and the child’s mother. You can do this without a lawyer, but you’ll need to present this agreement to the local court for a judge’s approval. If you try to skip the court altogether, you put yourself at risk. More often than you’d imagine, the parent giving up custody changes his or her mind after a while and then denies there ever was any agreement. In that case, the parent accepting custody can get stuck with paying back support even though the child has been living with him or her during the whole time period. Make sure the agreement says that each of you intends that your son’s legal and physical custody be transferred from his mother to you and that all child support will cease as of a specific date (which you’ll choose and include). The agreement doesn’t have to be in fancy legal language, it just needs to make the important points in writing and include both your full names and that of your son. Then be sure you both sign the agreement in front of a notary public. Forward the agreement to the court that handled your divorce and include a letter asking a judge to adopt it as a court order. Also ask the judge to make an order canceling the deductions from your paycheck. A sympathetic judge will give you what you need to take to the payroll office and cancel the child support. An unsympathetic judge may tell you that you need to hire a lawyer for the job. But in truth, it is a very simple procedure and you should be able to get the court to do the necessary paperwork.
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It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Legal problems come to everyone. Whether it’s your son who gets in a car wreck, your uncle who loses his job and needs to file for bankruptcy, your sister’s brother who’s getting divorced, or a grandparent that passes away without a will -all of us have legal issues and questions that arise. So when you have a law question, call Ascent Law for your free consultation (801) 676-5506. We want to help you!
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