Do I Need a Child Custody Lawyer?

Learn what happens during a custody dispute, when hiring a lawyer makes sense, and how to go about finding the right attorney.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School
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The idea of having to battle for the right to be with your children can be overwhelming, but having a good child custody lawyer on your side can make all the difference. These kinds of lawyers are family law attorneys who have specific experience in custody cases.

In many situations, by working together with the children's best interests in mind, parents can negotiate a custody agreement without fighting in court. Sometimes, though, one parent's idea of what's best for the children differs drastically from the other's.

If you can sit down with your child's other parent and hash out the details of physical and legal custody, visitation, and child support, then it's very likely that a lawyer won't be necessary. If you can't, you might need a lawyer, a mediator, or even both.

When It's Time to Hire a Lawyer for Your Custody Dispute

You might want to talk to a family law lawyer for any number of reasons, but here are seven that often arise in child custody situations:

1. The Other Parent Has a Lawyer

When the other parent hires a lawyer and you don't have one, the balance of power in negotiations shifts. Lawyers are skilled in state custody laws and can typically advocate for their clients far better than people without formal training can represent themselves. Lawyers also understand the court's procedures and might be familiar with past orders the judge has made in similar cases.

Many people choose to hire an attorney once they know that the other parent is represented. If you think you can't afford an attorney to represent you throughout the entire custody process, consider consulting with one to get advice on how to best represent your interests. (You can also ask that attorney whether the other parent might have to contribute to your attorneys' fees if you hire a lawyer.)

2. Your Ex Has Moved (or Plans to Move)

When your co-parent lives in or is planning to move to another city, state, or country, it can be a challenge to figure out which area's laws apply to your child custody dispute. Even when the laws are similar, the logistics of physical custody and visitation can get complicated. A lawyer can help you navigate the potential legal differences, and can offer advice on how to manage the day-to-day realities of custody and visitation based on the lawyer's experience dealing with similar situations.

3. You (or Your Children) Have Experienced Abuse

In cases where there is recent or ongoing child abuse or domestic violence, handling negotiations yourself or going to mediation without a lawyer might not be the best path to a resolution. If you can't afford to hire a lawyer, you might find help from your local "legal aid" organization. In most states, legal aid organizations reserve resources for cases that involve children and have a record of abuse, and can sometimes provide free or low-cost representation.

4. You Have Some Skeletons in Your Closet

Fighting for custody of your child can get heated, and it's possible that your co-parent might attempt to sway the decision by bringing up some skeletons in your closet. If you have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, past convictions, or even a record of arrests, you might want to hire a lawyer to help you explain why this history shouldn't have an effect on the custody decision.

5. Your Co-Parent's Attitude Has Changed

If your co-parent's approach to custody discussions suddenly takes a turn for the worse, it might be time to talk to an attorney. For example, failing to return calls or emails about your child, coming up with excuses as to why a planned visit can't happen, or showing a general unwillingness to consider what's in the best interest of your child are all red flags warning that you might be heading into a custody battle.

6. You Don't Like the Outcome of Your Child Custody Evaluation

In some states, when a parent files a custody request, a court staff member conducts a custody evaluation before bringing the case to the judge.

The custody evaluation usually involves an employee interviewing each parent and the child to evaluate the best fit for the child. Once the interviews are complete, the evaluator sends a custody recommendation to the court. If necessary, the evaluator will also meet with other important individuals, like social workers, teachers, or family members. (For information about the process, read our article on child custody evaluations.)

If you're happy with the outcome of the evaluation, you might be able to skip hiring a lawyer. However, if you disagree with any part of the recommendation, you'll have to ask the judge to review it in a court hearing. Convincing a judge that the recommendation should be disregarded can be an uphill battle, though, so you might want to consider hiring a lawyer to represent you at the hearing.

7. You Need to Change an Existing Custody Agreement

Sometimes a parent needs to modify an existing custody order—for example, the child's school schedule changes or a parent is being relocated for work. When you and your co-parent can't come to an agreement about proposed changes to a custody agreement, consider hiring an attorney to help you assert your position.

How to Find a Child Custody Lawyer

When you decide that hiring a lawyer is right for your case, it's normal to not know where to start your search—especially when you might never have worked with a lawyer before.

Identify Possible Lawyers

Friends and family. A good way to begin the lawyer search is by talking to family and friends who have hired custody lawyers in the past. Personal referrals and attorney reviews from your social circles will be some of the most brutally honest you will find.

Bar associations. Beyond recommendations from friends and family, your state's bar association can be a referral source. The bar association is an organization that keeps track of all lawyers, new and old, including their practice specialties, license status, and history of infractions (if any). Some states' bar associations also offer a service where you can speak with a participating attorney at a reduced rate.

Legal sites and directories. You can connect with family law attorneys with child custody experience on legal websites such as this one. You can also use attorney listing services such as and to browse profiles of attorneys that include the lawyer's area of practice, client reviews, and contact information.

Learn About the Lawyers

Once you have the names of a few prospective lawyers, call each attorney and set up a free consultation. While not all lawyers offer a free in-person meeting, most will provide a short telephone call to discuss the basics of your case and their services. You should think of your initial consultation as an interview where you will learn about the lawyer's experience with cases similar to yours, their availability, and their fees. While there might be many family law attorneys qualified to take your case, it's important to find one who understands your case, will be a strong advocate, and is a good communicator.

Questions to Ask a Child Custody Lawyer

During an initial consultation, the attorney probably won't give you much advice on your specific case. But you can use the time to evaluate whether the attorney is a good match for you by asking the following:

  1. Similar cases. What's your experience with custody cases, and what kinds of results have you gotten? What is your strategy for cases like mine?
  2. The local court. Do you have experience working in the court where I will file my case?
  3. Mediation. Do you believe in alternative dispute resolution, like mediation, or do you prefer to go to trial? (Keep in mind that going to trial will cost significantly more than attending mediation and negotiating with your ex.)
  4. The other lawyer. Do you have experience working with or against any of the other attorneys involved in my case?
  5. Cost. What do you charge per hour? Will you require a retainer fee? (A retainer is a lump sum the attorney will place into a special account and deduct from as your expenses rise; most attorneys will ask for one.)
  6. Pay options. Do you accept credit cards? Is there a fee for using a credit card?
  7. Other staff. Who else will be working on my case? (In some law firms, attorneys will delegate casework to support staff like paralegals, associate attorneys, or secretaries. It's important to ask how the attorney will handle your case. You'll want to know whether you will be contacting support staff with questions or will have access to the attorney directly.)
  8. Pay rates. Do you charge different hourly rates when a paralegal or secretary works on my case?
  9. Going to court. Who will represent me in front of the judge? (In some firms, more than one attorney is assigned to a case—you'll want to find out if another attorney might work on your case or handle court appearances.)
  10. Client responsibilities. What do you need from me? (Most attorneys will ask new clients to complete a detailed intake packet to gather information for completing your court paperwork.)

Working With Your Lawyer

Any lawyer you decide to hire will probably require that you sign a fee agreement that outlines information like the fee structure, office policies, and expectations.

If you do decide to work with a lawyer, try to make the most of the experience. After you hire the lawyer, you'll probably have a very detailed meeting that you should prepare for. Complete the required paperwork, gather relevant documents, and make a list of questions. At that initial meeting and throughout the process, try to set your lawyer up for success by being prepared.

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