What Is Family Court Like?

Nearly all single dads will have to go through family court for custody, child support, and divorce proceedings. It’s very rare that the breakup and split is amenable enough that everyone agrees on everything up front without the need to go to court. If lawyers get involved, it’s almost guaranteed that court will be included as well. Welcome to the legal system. Here’s my understanding and experience with family court. I’m neither an attorney nor an expert, but I have been there several times and learned a few things.

The Judge

The first thing to know about family court is that the judge and his/her demeanor and attitude are the most important part of the whole proceeding. Sure, you can have stacks of evidence, tons of information, testimonials from everyone and their cousin, and even law enforcement on your side when you enter court. But if the judge decides not to like you, things are probably not going to go as well as they could (or should). It seems arbitrary and stupid, but it’s the truth.

In order to “bone up” on what family court was all about and how these things proceed, I sat through a lot of court sessions. These were cases that I was completely unaffiliated with and had no part of. So I could be objective. I noted how the proceedings went, how the plaintiffs and defendants conducted themselves, the machinations of the attorneys involved, etc. What I noticed in all cases, no matter which courtroom I was in, was that the judge seemed to have a good idea of what was going on well before the trial was really going.

The first meetings, where the mother and father (usually the case, sometimes a grandparent) stood before the judge were crucial. If an impression was made that was negative, say by whiny comebacks or stumbling attempts to avoid or circumvent questions, and with a lack of respect being shown to the court (meaning the judge), that impression would stick. A person with an obvious problem (drug abuse, mental issue, etc) would not likely do well representing him or herself and would be better off with an attorney doing it for them.

Even then, the wrong attorney will mean a bad impression as well. Attorneys have reputations and the judges know those reputations and see those attorneys regularly. If the lawyer is a donkey’s relative, the judge will know that and the impression will be bad before things have even begun.

What this Means For You

It means that you should carefully select an attorney based on reputation, not on price tag or availability. Delaying proceedings to find the right lawyer is usually perfectly fine and only involves some paperwork filing. If you are in any way honest-appearing, articulate, and capable of speaking in public without fear, then consider representing yourself in the beginning and finding an attorney later.

Most of the initial court proceedings are procedural, which means there are no real decisions being made. Most of the decisions asked for will be obvious and straight-forward (temporary child support requests, temporary custody arrangements, etc). If you’re articulate enough to read this, you’re good enough to handle those things pro se.

That doesn’t mean to avoid getting an attorney. Even if you aren’t using one in court, a lawyer to act as your adviser is indispensable.

How Court Works

Most of your initial court attendances will be scheduled as monthly or bi-monthly sessions. These are usually 10-15 minutes each and are just “where are we now?” proceedings. The judge will want to know what progress has been made, when to expect more progress, and so forth. These usually proceed for the first two or three court dates before the judge will ask if mediation will help. Always be open to mediation as it’s the primary way to avoid court (and its associated costs).

Things that will happen during these initial court dates:

  • The judge will ask for a rundown of the case, basically asking whomever filed to reiterate what’s in their filing to initiate the proceedings.
  • The judge will determine whether counsel should be recommended for one or both parties. This is rare and if either or both ask to be pro se (represent themselves), the judge will likely advise against it but not contest the decision.
  • A guardian ad litem (GAL) will be appointed or recommended by the judge for the case. The plaintiff is usually required to pay for the GAL (another attorney, who advocates for the children).
  • A mediator may be assigned if the court assigns them (some do, some don’t). This will be yet another attorney.

Most court sessions are “group” sessions. This means that several people are on the same docket at the same time. The docket will likely be one to two hours long and your case could be called first, last, or anywhere in between. Until trial comes, that’s how court dates are most likely to be scheduled. Some courts will have individual times for each docket entry, but that’s pretty rare.


I don’t have much experience with this end of things. So far, despite three case proceedings through court over divorce and child custody, we have yet to go to trial. Mediation is a great tool and should be used. At trial, though, you can expect that a half or full day will be used for your case and that your having an attorney is almost a requirement. Going to trial without the advice of a lawyer will mean you’ll likely forget something or not even know it’s required.

Note: I am not a legal adviser or attorney. Nor can I offer legal advice. This is mainly for your benefit to gain perspective on what family court is like.