How to Represent Yourself in Family Court

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Most cases that come before family courts involve divorce, child custody and child support issues. These courts deal with other aspects of family law, however, hearing family-related matters like establishing paternity, adoptions and domestic abuse cases. Whether you should represent yourself in a family law matter depends on the nature of the case and if your spouse is in agreement.

Family Law Cases

Family court judges hear cases involving legal issues between members of the same family, so stakes and emotions can run high. It is simply a bad idea to represent yourself in some types of family law cases, such as child abuse or neglect, or elder abuse cases, and even in child custody battles and marital property division cases, you are probably far better hiring an attorney. However, self-representation is more common in unopposed divorce or dissolution cases.

Summary Dissolution

Summary dissolution is a quick and easy divorce procedure available in some states in which it may be possible for you to represent yourself. If you are childless, have a marriage of short duration, such as five years or less in California, and have limited assets and no real estate, you may qualify to use the summary process. You and your spouse file a joint petition and exchange financial information. If you resolve all property issues between you, you may even avoid a court appearance. Obtain the form package, which includes instructions, from your court or its website.

Uncontested Divorce

If you and your spouse agree on the divorce and have mutually negotiated the big issues, you may be able to handle a regular divorce without an attorney. You'll need to find the correct forms, fill them out accurately and file them in the clerk's office in a timely fashion. Serving the complaint on your spouse means having an adult other than you hand him the papers, a job that shouldn't be too difficult if he doesn't contest the divorce. Many state family courts have self-help websites that describe the divorce procedure and offer printable forms. Others have family law court facilitators who can review your completed forms before you file them.

Contested Divorce

Even if your spouse doesn't want to end the marriage, he cannot keep you from proceeding with the divorce. However, he can make the court case much more difficult so you should think twice about self-representation in a contested case. And if your spouse hires a lawyer, you'd better do the same. This is particularly true if you have marital property, debts or minor children. In order to determine and divide marital property and debt, you need complete financial disclosure from your spouse and to calculate the appropriate family support payments, you need complete income information. To do this, you will have to file motions to compel discovery, which is not something a layperson is familiar with or is likely to be proficient at. Step back and let your attorney act in your stead in contested divorces.

Other Family Law Cases

You may feel competent to represent your self in other types of family law cases such as adoption, emancipation -- being adjudged an adult before the age of 18, guardianship and paternity to determine a child's father, depending upon the circumstances. If you decide to try self-representation, obtain forms and directions from the family court clerk or the court's website, mark deadlines and hearing dates on your calendar and do your homework online or at the law library to learn about the laws involved and the court process. Proceed slowly and carefully and don't hesitate to bring in an attorney at any point if you feel you are in over your head.


About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson,,, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.

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