1. Parenting

What to Do When Your Ex Files for Custody

Know Your Options Before You Respond

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Become familiar with the child custody laws in your state.

Know what to do when your ex files for child custody -- whether you have a lawyer or not.

Photo © Cristian Baitg, 2009

Worried that your ex will file for custody of your children? Part of facing that concern head-on is knowing what you can do about it. Whether you have a lawyer already or need to get one, these tips will help you plan ahead: 

If you already have a lawyer...

Contact your lawyer right away and let him or her know what has happened. Send copies of the documentation you've received and make an appointment to review your options right away. 

If you don't have a lawyer but plan to get one... 

If you've been thinking about hiring a lawyer but haven't gotten around to it yet, go ahead and take steps to find one. Start by asking your friends and family members for referrals -- especially if you know someone who hired a child custody lawyer and was pleased with the experience. Next, research family law attorneys in your area online and make appointments to interview at least three of them (in person or over the phone).

For more on how to find a qualified lawyer, read:

If you don't have a lawyer and can't afford one... 

If your ex files for custody and you cannot afford a lawyer, you have several options. Many parents choose to handle custody cases pro se, which means they represent themselves without an attorney. Almost all courts have pro se help lines or legal aid offices on site to assist individuals who do not have attorneys representing them. In many cases, these programs are designed to help pro se parties use the correct forms for filing and may even provide assistance with their completion. In addition, most courts will waive the filing fees if you submit proof that you cannot afford them. The drawback to this option is that representing yourself can be time-consuming and confusing, especially in complicated cases, and this may put you at a disadvantage if your ex has an attorney and you do not.

Alternatively, you can contact your local Legal Aid office or search for pro bono legal programs in your area. Many pro bono organizations provide legal services or lawyer referrals at no cost (or at a reduced cost). These services are designed to assist individuals who need legal help but cannot afford an attorney. You can find local organizations through an online search or by looking through the yellow pages.

What to do if you lose

It's natural to worry about the consequences of losing in court. It's a daunting undertaking, and with so much at stake it's hard to even consider the impact of actually losing your case. But it's important to know from the beginning that you have options.

If you lose your case in court, there are certain circumstances under which you can appeal the judge's decision. However, the decision made by the judge must be final before you can make an appeal. Usually, if there has been a hearing on the merits, and the judge has heard all of the evidence, then the judge’s decision is final and can be appealed. However, higher courts will not review a custody decision made by a lower court unless the lower court has made some kind of error. You cannot appeal a decision just because you don’t agree with the judge’s ruling – you must show that the judge made some kind of mistake. An example of a mistake includes not considering all of the evidence or not giving certain evidence proper weight.

If you haven't been working with a lawyer up to this point, and you want to know whether you can appeal a decision made in your case, you should meet with a lawyer to discuss your options.

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