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Navigating Child Custody Without Counsel

Dealing with child custody is not easy; it is complicated, stressful, and emotional. In today’s economy, many couples try to navigate the process without counsel. Given the significance of the matter, however, it may be advisable to consult counsel.

Navigating child custody

1. Locate forms.

Determine what type of custody petition is appropriate. Custody forms vary by state. The process is undertaken in the state court in the county where the child resides.

The Internet has legal forms available. The forms are easy to use and are free or available for a nominal fee. The local clerk’s office also has free forms.

2. File forms.

To start a case for child custody, file the completed forms in the clerk's office. Set forth as clearly as possible your reasons for why custody should be awarded to you; be explicit and specific.

The local superior, circuit, juvenile, and domestic relations court, or other state court official website in your jurisdiction, contains information detailing the process, forms, fees, and clerk’s office procedures. There may be a frequently-asked-questions section to resolve questions. The court cannot render legal advice and must refer you to an attorney for specific assistance.

When you file, you have to pay a filing fee, which varies by jurisdiction. Fee waivers or reductions may be available.

3. Wait for a response.

The court serves your ex-spouse with your papers and sends you the response your prior spouse files. The judge reviews your and your ex-spouse's papers and determines if a hearing is needed.

4. Attend the hearing.

Bring evidence to the hearing and be prepared to explain specifically why you believe you deserve custody. After the hearing, the judge makes a custody determination.

5. Modify existing arrangements by motion.

If you already have existing arrangements and need to modify them, it is necessary to file a motion. If your jurisdiction offers or requires mediation in custody situations, you may request a mediator. It is up to you to offer evidence to support your petition. A judge rules on the motion based on what is contained within the motion and response(s), the mediator’s review, and information related to financial support and the best interests and safety of the child.

6. Document changes in circumstances.

If there is a “significant change” in circumstances from what is in place in an existing temporary order or agreement, provide documentation to support evidence of that significant change and suggestions of what changes you desire the court to consider.

A loss of employment, disability, move out of state, and remarriage are examples of possible “significant changes” to be presented to the court for consideration and potential modification of existing orders or agreements.