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What are some tips for representing myself in a family matter?

It is always best to have an attorney help you in court, but if you find you must represent yourself, here are some suggestions. Two courts handle family law issues, Juvenile and Domestic Relations.  Start by reading the court’s website. Some courts post forms and instructions. For example, the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, Domestic Relations Division, has a complete packet with instructions and forms on how to file a divorce and your divorce decree. If you visit the clerk’s office, remember that clerks are not permitted to give legal advice.

If you seek a specific outcome, start by filing a complaint or motion. The other party must receive a copy of the documents that you file with a court. This is called “service.” You can ask the clerk of courts to “serve” the other party by completing a “service instruction” form. You will need a complete address for the other party. Failure to provide an accurate address for the other party will postpone your hearing. The clerk will send you notice of the date, time, and location for your hearing. Remember to notify the scheduler of any changes to your address or phone number. Mark your calendar for deadlines and hearings in your case.

The court expects you to be ready for your hearing. Keep your papers organized with paper clips or folders. Bring to court whatever proof you have that supports your case. For example, to prove your income for child support, you should have recent paystubs, w-2s and tax returns. Include three (3) copies of all documents that you plan to present to the court: one copy for the judge, another for the other party, and the third copy for yourself. Also, have copies of any documents that were filed by you and the other side. You can refer back to these papers as necessary.  Invite witnesses that can help you prove your case. The court will expect you to present testimony by asking questions during the hearing. Make sure you know what your witnesses will say when deciding who should testify.

When a case concerns children, courts will not permit your children to come into the court room, so it will be important to plan for child care ahead of time.

When it is time to present your case, stand and follow the directions of the judge or magistrate. Make sure to dress appropriately. Explain what you would like the court to do for you and your family. Most importantly, point out why this action is needed and how it will serve you or the best interest of your children.


This article was written by Legal Aid Managing Attorneys Davida Dodson and Tonya Whitsett and appeared in The Alert: Volume 30, Issue 2. Click here to read a full PDF of this issue!

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