Whether you need a lawyer for child custody depends largely on whether you and your spouse can agree. Some parents can work out a parenting plan or child custody agreement on their own, peacefully, while others will fight for what they believe is fair and right for their child. If you are preparing for a fight, you will want to consider legal help, but you have options.
Isn't Child Custody My Decision? Do I Need to Go to Court?
A child custody case is a part of family law that looks at a child's best interests to decide how much time they spend with each parent.
While child support considers the money needed to raise a child, a custody hearing (sometimes called a child custody "battle") considers the visitation rights and parenting plan that most benefits your child.
If you feel frustrated that a court can tell you what is best for your child, you are not alone. Many parents think a custody order (also called "custody agreement") should be decided by the parents and not a family court. If parents can find a solution that works for both of them and, more importantly, is in their child's best interests, then they can present that solution to a judge and avoid a courtroom battle. However, many parents cannot find a solution on their own and at least need mediation, if not a judge's input.
If you think the custody of your child should be your decision, but you cannot find an agreement with the other parent, then you have some options when going to court.
Option 1: Not Having Legal Representation From a Child Custody Attorney
You do not need to have an attorney for a custody dispute in most states. Representing yourself in court is your right and can have pros and cons.
The obvious pro is that you will save money on legal fees. However, going to court generally means the parents cannot find a solution. So you are looking at a complex process in front of you before you even get to the courtroom. You may need to take work off and put in hours of work to prepare your case.
The lesser-known cons of not having an attorney are:
- You do not know the people and nuances of the local court
- Paperwork is complicated and takes hours of research to understand and fill out properly
- It is easy to make filing mistakes or mistakes at a hearing that cost you time with your child
- You can overlook important steps or strategies that would have benefited you
- It is risky to fight for full physical custody of your child without a lawyer presenting it in the best light (most courts want to split parenting time evenly)
Choosing to represent yourself is a bold choice, and it may work for certain people. But do not let money be the reason you go to court alone.
There is legal aid available, and some attorneys accept payment plans. You can also consider the hybrid approach outlined below in option three.
Option 2: Fight for Your Custody Arrangement With a Child Custody Lawyer
Having professional legal help moves along the process faster and gives you a stronger chance to win the resolution you want.
Child custody issues are ultimately decided by the judge's view of the best interests of the child. But, an attorney will partner with you to show strong evidence of why you deserve parental rights.
Attorney are always a large expense that people do not plan for. Most cost $100-$500 per hour, and your case may need many hours. However, attorneys can cost less in the long run because they don't make mistakes in the process, and generally, the overall process goes faster.
An attorney will handle everything from A to Z, including:
- Filing complicated paperwork with the right people at the right times (pre-trial orders, child support worksheets, ex-parte temporary custody orders, etc.)
- Gathering personal character references, coaching on reference letters, and preparing witnesses for court
- Providing insight on the judge you are assigned
- Developing a strategy on your approach and attitude during the custody hearing
- Gathering evidence and contacting expert witnesses (such as a forensic accountant to show your ex is spending irresponsibly or doing something illegal)
- Helping you with your personal testimony and preparing you for tough questions from the judge
It is important to know that not all evidence is allowed in these cases. Only certain evidence is "admissible in court." Your family lawyer will know right away what is useful for your court case or not.
While the pictures of your ex on vacation might seem like proof of bad parenting to you, a judge may see it as you being angry and unpredictable.
Not all evidence and testimony is useful at the court hearing when you want to be the sole custodial parent, or even fight for half custody. Keep in mind a judge can give you less than half the time, or choose a weekly split that you don't want.
Important note: If your situation involves domestic violence, orders for protection, or other court orders, you should use an attorney. These types of cases are often better handled attorney-to-attorney. They need to keep certain information, like your home address, off the record. While you may have an order of protection for an ex-partner, they can still win visitation. Keeping you safe is the top priority, and a good lawyer knows how to represent your best interests.
Option 3: Hybrid Legal Advice, DIY, and Meditation Approach
Even if the other parent isn't entirely willing to cooperate, you may have some options to save money while handling a child custody dispute:
- Some law firms can advise you on a case by-the-hour, or act as your counsel outside of court.
- You can save money by handling all paperwork and case prep yourself, but this is a large, time-consuming feat.
- You can ask a lawyer to review your paperwork and help ensure it will meet the judge's expectations
- You can have an attorney only for your court hearings. Just remember that the case will not be as strong if the attorney gets involved last minute, so involving them early is a good idea.
- An attorney can work with your ex-partner to compromise on a parenting plan, which keeps the case out of court.
- You can also use a lawyer to try to convince the other parent to use mediation if they refused before.
Another option is to consider an alternative dispute resolution method like mediation. In mediation, you and your ex will sit down with a third-party mediator. They will stay impartial and help you and your ex see all sides of the issue. A licensed mediator can help you take a bad situation and find a compromise. Mediators tend to cost between $100 and $300 per hour, which is huge cost savings compared to court.
Situations When You Need a Custody Attorney
Both parents have the right to seek custody of their children — with or without an attorney. However, some factors make the case lean in favor of one side or the other.
It is a good idea to have an attorney if:
- You have a history of drug or alcohol use. Even if you enjoy a few drinks at home each week, this can be used against you in court. You will need to show you are taking steps to change the behavior or be able to defend your actions if your ex paints you in a bad light.
- You are getting re-married, you have step-children, or you have other children with a different partner. Blended families are not a problem for the courts, but the judge will want to look carefully at the care and finances your child needs from you. Most judges are hesitant to split up siblings.
- The custody battle is happening at the same time as a divorce, separation, or other legal issues.
- You need specialists or expert witnesses, such as a child psychologist.
- There is a power imbalance. If your spouse treats you like you are inferior and will not listen to your viewpoint, you will want to consider hiring an attorney to protect your rights.
- You are involved in a domestic violence situation. There is no question that you need a lawyer if your safety, and your children's safety, is at risk.
Overall, these cases tend to be emotionally-charged for the parents and children. Even the simplest of cases usually involves deep dives into finances, your character as a parent, and detailed aspects of family law in your state.
If you are unsure about your skill at preparing for the case or speaking in a high-stress situation, or your chances at winning the custody arrangement you want, then an attorney is going to be your strongest option. You can do a free consultation with attorneys in your area until you find the right fit for you.