Representing Yourself In A Custody Battle

When it comes to divorce, most people automatically assume they’re going to need a lawyer. Unfortunately there’s a difference between needing a lawyer and being able to afford one.

By the time her marriage ended, my present guest, Tina Swithin was also bankrupt, thanks to her husband’s misuse of money. Hiring an attorney was out of the question. Here’s Tina.

It’s four years that we’ve been in this right now and up until the past month, I’ve represented myself in court and I’ve done quite well in protecting my daughters. That’s been my driving force. I want to go to sleep every night knowing that I’ve done every single thing that I can to protect them.

Representing yourself in a custody battle requires dedication and researchIn the very beginning, we were both representing ourselves, so it was an even playing field. I would attend any free divorce workshops that I could find, resources through the courthouse. They offer free legal clinics and it became a part-time job for me.

I became a coffee addict and I stayed up very late. One of the biggest pieces of advice I was given early on by a friend who’s a police officer is to document everything and that, I believe, is where I found a lot of the success in protecting my daughters. I was so vigilant about documenting every little thing that happened when they were in his care, anything concerning and just not taking “no” for an answer.

If the judge didn’t want to limit custody on one round I waited a few months until I had some more supporting evidence and I went back in there. It was nerve-wrecking going into court. I had never been in a courtroom before and it’s a really intimidating place to be.

I’ve been told that our courts here are very friendly to people in pro se whereas in a lot of areas that’s not the case. In bigger cities, you don’t even want to walk into a courtroom without an attorney. Obviously, I didn’t have a choice, I was forced to because of my finances but I’ve actually had a positive experience for the most part in representing myself.

Thank God I didn’t realize how bad this was going to be. It’s just one of those “one foot in front of the other” things. It would’ve probably been really intimidating had I known what I was going to be up against, but I just took it month by month did what I could.

I’ve gone to bed every single night for four years knowing that I’ve done everything in my power and yet a lot of times I’m really frustrated with the family court system, because I feel like they just don’t get it. We don’t have bruises on us, we’re not abused physically, and that’s what they want to see to protect children. If you don’t have that, and especially if you compare it with an individual who has a personality disorder who is so believable and charming, the wool can be pulled over their eyes for quite awhile before a pattern is shown in the courtroom.

I counted last year in 2012, I actually had twelve court appearances, so we’re pretty much in there once a month dealing with anything from custody to child care issues, so it really has become a part-time job.

I do now have an attorney representing me and that has been a really interesting turn of events. I was contacted by a woman who lives down in Santa Barbara. I’ve never met her in my life and she read my book. She sent me an email at 6 a.m. and said, “I’ve been awake all night reading your book, it’s given me huge light bulb moments, changed my life.” We corresponded back and forth for a couple of weeks and she ended up finding me an attorney and paying for my retainer fee. I still, to this day, have not met this woman but she is my living, breathing angel.

It’s been amazing. It’s not just an attorney. I’ve had an issue with turning my case over to somebody just because I’ve done so well on my own in protecting the girls. To bring somebody on four years into it and try to explain everything that’s happened and really have someone who’s as passionate as I am about protecting the girls has taken a lot. But this attorney that she found is amazing and I could not have been aligned with a better person.

I’m a person who is always helping others and I find that when the tables reversed, I have a difficult time with that. However, I was to the point where I was so desperate with a trial on the horizon. I’ve never actually handled a trial. Everything that we’ve done has been little hearings here and there. This was a two-day trial it was scheduled for and I was panicking for the first time. The timing could not have been better. I have an agreement with her that in five years I can pay her back if I choose to. And I want to pay it forward. I think that it has been such an amazing blessing and I can’t wait to be in the position to do the same thing for someone else.

Tina’s financial situation meant she had no choice but to represent herself  or find pro bono representation. Even so, I admire her for taking this on and fighting for her girls. This takes stamina, perseverance and resilience. It would intimidate me.

I think so long as your ex doesn’t have legal representation, representing yourself in hearings is viable IF you do the appropriate research and make sure you understand the legal procedures. Once your ex has an attorney, the rules change and my personal belief is that the stakes are increased and the risk of losing increases because of a lack of understanding of legal procedure.

Tina is right, too – there is a significant difference between representing yourself in a hearing and representing yourself in a trial and she is very fortunate to have someone step in to pay her legal expenses.

If you are considering representing yourself, start with the American Bar Association website. The How Courts Work section will help you understand legal procedure. There’s also a state-by-state guide for the resources available in your state. At the state level you’ll find links for pro bono assistance and legal classes.

I think it goes without saying but I am going to say it … I always recommend that you consult with an attorney so you have a good understanding of your legal position. Once you know where you stand, then you can determine if an online divorce would work for you. If you’re STBX is suggesting that you don’t need to consult an attorney, it’s a red flag.

Tina Swithin describes herself as a one-time victim now survivor. She’s spent the past four years in a horrific custody battle with her ex who she believes suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. You can read about her journey at her blog, One Mom’s Battle and also in her book, Divorcing a Narcissist.

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