Representing Yourself in a High Conflict Child Custody Case
What Is a High Conflict Child Custody Case?
Virtually all child cVirtually all child custody litigation involves a tremendous amount of conflict which is driven by general animosity and possibly even a visceral hatred depending on how bad the breakup was. Typically, this anger and resentment fades over time, and Parties learn how to work together and focus on what’s best for the children. There can still be some conflict in these cases, but it tends to arise out of emotional immaturity and insecurity, which is something that can be communicated through and managed over time.
A high-conflict child custody case is nothing like this. In such a case your adversary both craves and requires the conflict to continue perpetually over time. This is usually because the adversary has a personality disorder or an obsessive reliance on the conflict itself. The adversary, over time, becomes more and more dependent on the conflict to validate their sense of self and obtain adulation, admiration, or sympathy from others that they communicate and associate with.
For conflict to end, both parents have to be willing to work together to a compromise, but in these cases, the adversary is both unwilling and incapable of it because doing so would ultimately result in them having to abandon the toxic obsession they have developed with the conflict as well as the adulation, admiration, and sympathy they had been receiving from others. In these cases, the conflict invariably will worsen over time, and almost always result in severe child abuse and neglect.
I started representing himself in August of 2008. I was a college student, still working on my undergrad, making well under the poverty line, whereas my ex had a full-time job as a medical technician in the VA Hospital. I couldn’t afford an attorney. She could.
Our case had hundreds of filings, over 20 hearings, with well over 40 orders having been entered by the court. To offer some perspective, I was able to get assistance from three lawyers, each of which represented me at a single hearing, and filed collectively approximately 2-3% of the papers in my cases.
In contrast, my ex had two lawyers, which collectively filed all but a single paper in her case, and represented her at all but one hearing.
. In August 2008, I started out with 2 hours of supervised visitation per week.
. In October of 2008, I transitioned into 2 days of unsupervised visitation per week.
. In August of 2009, I was awarded primary-physical and joint-legal custody.
. In November of 2014, I was awarded primary physical custody.
. In February of 2016, I was awarded sole legal custody.
. In August of 2016, my ex’s parental rights were terminated.
Throughout this wild and crazy legal journey, I managed to represent myself and win three appeals to the Supreme Court of Nevada.
Why Represent Yourself
The biggest part of question is whether you can afford an attorney. Virtually anyone, friends, family members, even judges, will tell you to hire an attorney. You will probably hear and read the phrase, “he who represents himself is a fool for a client.” What these good-intentioned advisors don’t understand is that you do want to hire an attorney, the problem is you cannot afford one!
Too often this idea that you can sell everything you own, work double shifts, and cut costs to come up with the money to hire an attorney, is perpetuated. Sometimes, you will even be told to ask family members to pitch in and even dip into retirement and home equity to help you. But, none of this will get you very far in a high-conflict child case because the cases never truly end, and frequent post-judgment disputes will not only arise but are characteristic of what a high-conflict child custody case truly entails. No average working person can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars that these never-ending cases can end up costing.
Ultimately, one comes to the conclusion that they must represent themselves not because they want to, but because they are being forced to. The most important thing one can do at this point is stop beating themselves up over it and focusing on their case and developing the mindset that is going to be needed to psychological survive the process.
It should also be noted that, whether or not one can afford an attorney is not the same question at every stage in the proceedings. Early on, it’s more important to hire one. One would be able to learn from their lawyer, as well as benefit from getting those first few orders and if possible that final judgment or decree without having made any mistakes. But later on, well into post-judgment proceedings, the question changes from whether one can afford an attorney to whether one wants to have a life that isn’t going to be in poverty.
There is little point to winning or maintaining a child custody dispute if one finds him or herself living in a studio or out of their car because all of their money is going to an attorney.
I personally graduated from college and tripled my income but continued to represent myself because at that point I already had primary physical custody and the disputes were annoying, “again and again” post-judgment motions and hearings and I didn’t want to put my family into a situation where we wouldn’t have any money to be able to enjoy life.
Self-help centers are a great start. I used them early on to get fillable forms, notarization, and basic advice and instructions. Later on, I ended up relying on them far less, if at all, and transitioned rather quickly into typing up my own custom papers and pleadings.
Lawyer in the Library (Ask a Lawyer Program)
I went to these programs twice, and both times quickly learned that they were not very helpful for complex legal questions, especially fact-intensive ones. The lawyers are simply unable to make enough of an inquiry in such a short amount of time and many of them have not themselves litigated on complex issues or ever been to the Supreme Court on an appeal, much less on a writ petition. Ultimately, these programs are a great resource for anyone who needs questions on simple procedure, service of process, and other small matters like assistance on computation of time as to when something may or may not be due.
Legal Aid Clinics
There are clinics that offer free representation to persons in exceptional circumstances, but based on my personal experience and what I’ve heard from others, they will not represent you pro bono except in the rarest of cases. Such cases typically involve severe acts of child abuse and neglect, or domestic violence, especially where the perpetrator has already been convicted of the crime. In all other situations, it is very unlikely you will receive any help.
If you’re interested in more I maintain a channel on representing yourself here:
Links to Alex's Case:
FV08-03200 (Child Custody And Visitation)
FV16-00031 (Child Support Enforcement)
CV13-01019 (Civil Writ Petition--Mandamus)
SCN 69341 (Order Reversing and Remanding)
SCN 65289 (Order Reversing and Remanding)
SCN 62296 (Order Reversing and Remanding)
Alexander Falconi is a contributing member of Pro Se PROS, LLC. Reach out to Alex at contact@ProSePROS.net.