How to File for Child Custody Without a Lawyer

by Teo Spengler ; Updated November 15, 2017

Child custody can be one of the most emotional issues during a divorce. It's not impossible to seek custody of the kids while representing yourself in a divorce. Many courts have self-help websites that walk you through the steps and provide instructions and forms. But you may want to think twice if you expect a custody battle.


  • You can represent yourself in a divorce and ask the court to award you custody of the children. Use all of the assistance your court provides, such as a self-help website and the family court facilitator.

Can I File for Custody Without a Lawyer?

Most states allow you to represent yourself in a divorce and ask for custody of your children. But it's important to think the matter through before you begin. Most courts will hold an individual representing herself to the same standard as an attorney and expect you to know the laws and rules of procedure. Therefore, don't jump in unless you are prepared to put in the time to get well-versed in your court's standards and rules.

Can you file for custody without a lawyer is a different proposition than if you should file for custody without a lawyer. If your spouse has flown the coop and never expressed any interest in seeing the kids, it might be a good idea. If your spouse has the character to fight you tooth and nail for custody and has expressed an intention in doing so, you'll want to engage an attorney to protect your and the children's interest.

How to Get Custody of a Child Without a Lawyer?

Generally, you must identify minor children in a divorce petition. You must state the name and date of birth of each child. Often, however, you first ask for custody of a child in a separate request for custody or a parenting plan. Currently, custody determinations are more complex than in yesteryear. While some courts still award sole custody to mom or to dad, many courts take a broader look at parenting and work out a custody/visitation arrangement that maximizes the kids' time with each parent.

"Parenting plan" is the name given to this type of extended custody plan. Often, each spouse is required to fill out the details of the plan he or she wishes the court to order, or the couple may agree on a parenting plan. The court considers both plans, and can enter either one or an entirely different one. The plan must address legal custody as well as physical custody issues.

Legal custody means who makes the important decisions for the children, including decisions about educational, health (mental, physical and emotional), religious and extracurricular activities. Physical custody is the term given to living arrangements in which the kids stay with one parent and then stay with the other. Different schedules are possible for weekends, holidays and summers.

Courts often provide various options to assist warring parents in pulling together a parenting plan that works best for the kids, such as counseling and mediation. Some require mediation. In Los Angeles courts, parents are required to complete an online mediation orientation program called "Our Children First" before mediation or the custody hearing.

Almost all family law courts base custody determinations on the best interests of the children. Judges take into account the relationship each parent has with the kids as well as other relevant factors. For example, Florida courts tell divorcing parents that they will take all circumstances between the parents, including their historic relationship, domestic violence, and other factors into consideration when ruling on a parenting plan. That's when a good lawyer can really help you in contested custody cases: helping to pull together a full picture of your familial relationships.

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About the Author

From Alaska to California, from France's Basque Country to Mexico's Pacific Coast, Teo Spengler has dug the soil, planted seeds and helped trees, flowers and veggies thrive. World traveler, professional writer and consummate gardener, Spengler earned a BA from U.C. Santa Cruz, a law degree from Berkeley's Boalt Hall, and an MA and MFA from San Francisco State. She currently divides her life between San Francisco and southwestern France.