Can I represent myself in a Virginia custody case: Part Two

On Monday, we talked a lot about custody cases.  Specifically, we talked about what’s at stake in a custody case.  Of course, you already know, in a general way, what’s at stake: it’s your child’s future.  But, if you haven’t studied Virginia law and don’t know how it treats child custody cases, you’ll probably want to go back and read Monday’s blog.  In it, we talked about the different kinds of custody, how child support is calculated, and how visitation works.  We also talked about how custody, visitation, and support can be modified.  We also talked about the “mom’s downfall” in custody cases (and, if you don’t know what that is, you’ll definitely want to go back and read Monday’s post).

Today, we’re going to talk more about custody cases.  We’ll talk about what attorneys do in custody cases, whether you can do it yourself, what resources are out there to help you in the event that you decide to try to handle your own custody case, and your possible alternatives.

Let’s get started.

    So, what do attorneys do?

You may be wondering whether you should hire an attorney, do it yourself, or look for some other miracle alternative.  But, when you think about hiring an attorney, you probably wonder—what do they even do that’s so awesome?  Do I really, seriously need an attorney?

Attorneys do all sorts of things.  Mainly, it is their job (1) to help make the custody process run as smoothly as possible, and also (2) to help ensure that each client’s future (and the future of their children) is adequately protected.  Those two things are incredibly important, and it’s impossible to adequately represent a client without being equally concerned about the here and now as well as the future.

Whether your custody case looks like it’s going to be contested (meaning that you can’t agree about how custody, visitation, and child support will be handled) or uncontested (you can reach an agreement and won’t have to go to court to fight about it), there are a lot of things that you’ll need help with as you move through your custody case, and there are some types of help that only an attorney can provide.  It’s not just about providing guidance through the whole courtroom experience (in fact, you may not ever go to court at all); it’s also about the process of discussing options, weighing consequences, negotiating results, and carefully drafting documents.  All of these things have to be done both with your current situation and your ideal (but still hypothetical) future situation in mind, so that you’re protected against any possible unintended consequences.  An attorney considers everything, including modifications, possible appeals, and other things that sometimes surprise people who don’t hire attorneys later on.

An attorney brings with her detailed, in-depth knowledge of family law in general and custody cases specifically, which is critical.  They know the law, understand the court system, and have experience with the local judges.  Because they know the law, they know how to advise you, and they can tell you what’s worth fighting over and where to give way, if necessary.  An attorney is aware of any recent updates, changes in the law, or new case law, which can impact your case (sometimes a lot).

    Can I really do it myself?

Can you handle your custody case without an attorney?  Absolutely.  In Virginia, you’re definitely allowed to represent yourself in the courtroom in a family law case.  The question is, though, do you really want to?  Well, of course you don’t really WANT to (if you’re like most people, you’re pretty scared about it), but can you do it well enough that you adequately protect yourself and your children’s future?

In some cases, it might not be a good idea to represent yourself.  If it looks like your custody case is going to be contested, or if your case presents some kind of complicated issue, you may have no real choice but to hire an attorney to represent you.  It’s not against the rules to represent yourself, no matter how complicated your case it, but you have to ask yourself whether you’d be doing more harm than good.  When you consider how much is at stake in a custody case, it’s not hard to imagine that it might be worth your while to make sure that you can pay to hire an attorney to represent you.  It’s inconvenient and can sometimes be expensive, but you have to recognize the importance of what you’re doing.  Whether you’re signing a custody and visitation agreement (which is just a legal contract that explains how you’ll handle custody, visitation and child support, without going to court) or letting the judge decide how to divide it all, you’re creating the blueprint for your children’s future.  The money that you get (or give up) in child support will be the money that pays (or doesn’t pay) for your mortgage or rent, your utilities, and your groceries—not to mention the shoes, school clothes, textbooks, equipment, internet, and other things kids need to succeed.

In some cases, especially where the case is uncontested, it is definitely possible to represent yourself, but you should be aware of all the possible consequences of your decision.  Even in cases where money is tight, lots of women find resources so that they will be able to hire an attorney to represent their interests.  They borrow money from friends or family members, get loans, or even put it on their credit cards, just so that they won’t have to come face to face with their husbands in the courtroom alone.

Juvenile Court versus Circuit Court

Still, there are plenty of women who decide to handle their own cases—contested or uncontested, particularly when their cases are in the juvenile court.

Juvenile courts are courts not of record, which is important when it comes to custody cases.  You can file at the juvenile court for custody, visitation, and support (all the things you want to be decided in a custody case).  Juvenile courts also have a reputation for being a little more user friendly than circuit courts.  Even better?  If you represent yourself at the juvenile court level and don’t get the result you want, you can appeal it automatically to the circuit court.  Since the juvenile court is a court not of record, nothing from your lower court case follows you up to the circuit court.  Your appeal is “de novo,” which means that it’s basically brand new.

So, if you’re handling a case at the juvenile court level, there’s not as much risk as a case at the circuit court level (which would be much, much harder to appeal).  Lots of women decide to try to handle their cases themselves, since they are in the juvenile court, and then, if things go badly, they hire an attorney to handle the appeal to circuit court.

As you can probably imagine, though, it’s difficult to represent yourself.  You’re taking on a lot of responsibility.  It takes hard work to handle a case, so you’re going to want to do as much as you can to prepare ahead of time.

What resource is out there to help me represent myself successfully?

        Custody Bootcamp for Moms

Custody Bootcamp for Moms is an intense, all day seminar designed to give you the tools you need to either (1) prepare to represent yourself at the juvenile court level in your custody, support, or visitation case, or (2) check up on your attorney, if you’ve already hired one.  It’s taught by Kristen Hofheimer and covers all the basics of handling custody cases in Virginia, including how to prepare a trial notebook, what to wear, when to sit and stand, how to address the judge, the ten most critical factors in a custody case, how to question and cross examine witnesses (and prepare for being questioned and cross examined yourself), how to get your good evidence in (and keep his out), and how to prepare killer opening and closing arguments.

There’s no other seminar like it, and certainly nothing in Virginia designed to help dads prepare for custody cases.  It’s intense, but it’s full of tons of information and, if you’re preparing to represent yourself (or just want to know a whole lot more about custody cases in Virginia), you don’t want to miss it!

For more information, or to get a copy of our free report, “Can I REALLY Represent Myself in My Custody Case?” just click here.

    What alternatives are there?

If you don’t want to hire an attorney, and don’t really want to do it yourself, you’re probably wondering what other alternatives exist out there for moms facing custody cases in Virginia.  There aren’t a lot of other alternatives, really—most people either negotiate something (either on their own or with the help of an attorney) with their child’s father, or go to court (either on their own or with the help of an attorney) and let the judge decide.  Sometimes, though, parents choose to mediate their custody cases.

        Mediation

Some courts require mediation to take place before they’ll hear a case.  So, even if you file for custody, visitation and support in your local juvenile court, you may be required to attend a mediation session before you get a court date.  You can also elect to participate in mediation without an open case by looking one up on the internet (or in the phone book, if you’re old school like that) and making an appointment.

Lots of people really like mediators and, in some cases, mediators are able to settle a case without costing as much as an attorney might.  Still, you would do well to remember that, in most cases, mediators are not attorneys, and therefore can’t really advise you on your legal rights.  They can’t tell you what a good agreement would be, what a judge might order, or whether you should sign the agreement they propose.  Because of this, we usually recommend that moms who want to meet with mediators meet with an attorney before and after mediation, first to make sure that you know what a good agreement would look like (or what a judge might award), and then afterwards to make sure that you know what you’re signing before it’s too late.

Mediation can be a great option, but it’s also risky.

If you have any questions, want to schedule an appointment, or want more information about Custody Bootcamp for Moms  give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.

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