What if I don’t want to hire an attorney in my custody case?

Posted on May 7, 2014 by Katie Carter

In my blog on Monday, we talked about the alternatives to hiring an attorney in your custody and visitation case, but I left one key part out of my discussion. What if you want to handle your custody case yourself, without hiring an attorney, without going to mediation, and without considering collaboration? You’re definitely not alone.

For whatever reason, you may not want to hire an attorney. In Virginia, you’re absolutely allowed to represent yourself at both the juvenile and circuit court levels, so you don’t have to hire an attorney if you don’t want to. You can file all the same things an attorney files and appear in court on your own behalf.

So, what do I do to get started?

Well, in a custody and visitation case, you’re going to want to file petitions for both custody and visitation. If support is an issue, you’ll want to fill out a form for support as well. Usually, you can find these forms online at the court’s website. You can download them, fill them in on your computer at home, and print them. You can go to the juvenile and domestic relations district court in your locality and ask the clerk for the forms. Be sure to ask the clerk how the forms need to look when they are received; some courts require that the petitions be typed, rather than handwritten.

If you don’t have a computer at home, you can always go to the local library and use one.

I don’t want visitation, so all I need is the custody form.

No! Absolutely wrong! You want to fill out petitions for custody AND visitation, even if you’re hoping that the judge will quickly and easily award you sole custody.

Why? Well, the reason is pretty simple. If you’ve only filled out a petition for custody, and, for whatever reason, the judge doesn’t give you custody, you can’t turn around and ask for visitation if you haven’t filed a petition for it. It’s not because the judge is a jerk or because he doesn’t care what happens to you or your child. It’s just the way the law works. Basically, the court doesn’t have the authority to award you anything you haven’t officially asked it to award. Without that paperwork, you haven’t asked the court for what you want, and the judge can’t give it to you without the request. Bottom line: if you’re going anyway, you should fill out all the forms that apply.

Okay, so what do I do now?

Once you’ve filled out the forms, you’ll get a return date. At the return date, you’ll make an initial appearance in front of the judge. If your child’s father doesn’t show up, the judge will probably just grant what you’ve asked for. If your child’s father comes and you can’t agree on how to handle custody, visitation, and support, the judge will set a trial date. You’ll have to come back on that date and put on a whole trial, with evidence, testimony from witnesses, and oral arguments.

I’m still stuck on the forms. They’re hard. Where can I get help?

The forms are tricky, especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with court paperwork. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of places you can get help. You can ask the clerks, and sometimes they’ll provide a little bit of assistance, but they really aren’t supposed to. The court is supposed to be neutral, and it doesn’t look good if it’s providing too much assistance to one side or the other. Not only that, but a court clerk isn’t an attorney, and really isn’t qualified to give legal advice, so you may or may not want to listen to them, anyway.

If you’re interested in representing yourself, you’ll need to do a lot of preparation ahead of time. You can definitely research on your own and find out what courts are looking for when they make custody and visitation determinations. You can read up about trial strategy, how to make awesome opening and closing arguments, how to question and cross examine witnesses, and how the hearsay rule works in Virginia courts. It’s tough, but it can be done.

Is there anyone that can help me prepare to represent myself in a custody and visitation case?

Yes! My law firm offers a one day, super intense seminar called Custody Bootcamp for Moms. It’s offered four times a year, and it’s designed to teach moms what they need to know to represent themselves at the juvenile court level in their custody and visitation petitions.

We call it Bootcamp for a reason! It begins promptly at 8:30 am, and lasts up until the last woman has had her last question answered, which is usually between 3 and 4pm.

We have been teaching divorce seminars in the area for over twenty years, so it made sense to us that we would expand our offerings to help women facing custody cases as well. Obviously, custody cases can come up in the context of a divorce, but there are plenty of women who have a custody case and aren’t going through a divorce. We felt it was important to offer custody-specific information that would help women in both situations, whether or not their case was part of a divorce action.

We are also hearing more and more often that women want information about what it takes to represent themselves in court, and there are really no other resources designed to help educate women about the process. It is definitely a problem! Short of getting a law degree yourself, or spending tons and tons of time wading through statutes, up until now there really haven’t been a lot of options for pro se litigants. (That’s what we call people who represent themselves without hiring an attorney.)

Who teaches the seminar?

The seminar is taught by Kristen Hofheimer. She’s the managing partner of the law firm, and has a lot of experience handling complex custody cases, including cases with sexual or physical abuse allegations, same sex cases, and more. For more information on Kristen, and to read her full biography, please click here.

Caitlin Walters, another Hofheimer Family Law attorney, will also be on hand to discuss her experience working as a guardian ad litem, and to help answer questions during the breaks. Caitlin worked as a GAL prior to joining us at Hofheimer Family Law, and has considerable experience handling custody cases. For more information on Caitlin, and to read her full biography, please click here.

What will I learn at Custody Bootcamp for Moms?

At Custody Bootcamp for Moms, you’ll learn absolutely everything you need to know to put on an effective custody case at the juvenile court level, including the 10 all-important custody factors and how to apply them to your custody case; when to sit, stand, and how to address the judge; what to wear; how to question and cross examine witnesses; how the rules of evidence in Virginia work (so you can keep his evidence out and get yours in); how to work with guardians ad litem and custody evaluators, if one has been appointed in your case; what to expect when you get into the courtroom and how to prepare ahead of time, including how to prepare a trial notebook so that you’re poised, organized, and not flustered as you speak to the judge; and even how to prepare killer opening and closing arguments.

There is really no other program anywhere like it, and there is no comparable program to help men prepare for custody cases. If you choose to move forward with your custody case without hiring an attorney, this is information you’ll definitely need to know. This information isn’t taught anywhere else, and certainly not by a licensed, experienced, professional Virginia divorce attorney—let alone two! Kristen and Caitlin can help prepare you for what you will face in your custody case, both in and out of the courtroom, and will help give you the information you need to put on a carefully crafted custody trial.

I already handled my own custody case and I messed up. What do I do now?

The good news about custody cases is that you’re not stuck. Anything regarding the children is modifiable later, based on a material change in circumstances. If you already represented yourself in court and were bull dozed by your child’s father or by the court system itself, you’re not alone. As long as you can demonstrate a material change in circumstances, you can go back to court and try again.

The court’s reasoning is simple. As long as your child is a minor, she deserves the best that both you and your child’s father can provide. When circumstances change, what’s best for the child may change, too, and the court wants to leave the door open to both you and your child’s father to come back and change custody and visitation, if the court finds that the change would be in the best interests of the child. After all, what’s in the child’s best interests may evolve and change over time, and what you’re able to provide to her may evolve and change, too. If custody and visitation were absolutely final, that would not serve the best interests of the child at all.

So, what’s a material change? Almost anything is a material change, but this includes, most often, changes in jobs or income and moves. For more information on material changes in circumstances, please click here.

If you’re trying to modify custody and visitation, Custody Bootcamp for Moms will be helpful for you, too! The process is really very similar, and we can help provide you with all the skills you didn’t have the first time around. You still need to know!

What are the 10 custody factors? Why are they so critical?

In Virginia, like in most states, custody cases are decided based on what is in the best interests of the child. So, how do you know what’s in the best interests of the child? You read the statute! In Virginia, there are 10, super critical, all-important, case-determining factors that help judges, Guardians ad litem, and others determine what kind of custody and visitation arrangement is in the child’s best interests. For more information on the 10 factors, click here.

Just knowing the factors really isn’t enough, though knowing them gets you further than most. You want to read, understand, and be able to tell the judge how living with you would be in the best interests of the child based on an analysis of each of the ten factors. It’s complicated stuff, but Kristen can help teach you how to do it seamlessly, so that you can show the judge what a good mother you are. After all, going to court isn’t about justice or fairness, it’s about the evidence and what you can prove. You’ll want to prove that you’re a good mother, and the way to do that is by showing a command of the 10 factors and explaining, clearly and concisely, how your parenting style best exemplifies the issues discussed in the statute.

Will Kristen teach me how to handle a trial?

Yes! That is the whole point of the Custody Bootcamp for Moms seminar! Kristen and Caitlin will help give you the super critical information you need to know to handle your own custody and visitation case at the juvenile court level in Virginia. No one else is teaching this information!

How much does it cost?

Enrollment in the Custody Bootcamp for Moms seminar is $197—which is less than the cost of an hour with a moderately priced local attorney! Be sure to enroll early, because space is limited. You can register online, and get more information about the seminar and the information it covers, at CustodySeminar.com.

For more information about Custody Bootcamp for Moms, please click here , or just give our office a call at (757) 425-5200. We would be more than happy to talk with you about the seminar and what you can expect. You CAN handle this on your own. We’ll help you prepare!