Going to Court Without a Lawyer in Family Law Cases – How to begin
When you take a case to court, you must file documents that tell the court what the dispute is and what you are asking for.
Both sides of a court case (also called “parties”) must then file more documents giving the court the information it needs to make a decision.
DEFINITIONS: Am I the Petitioner or the Respondent?
Petitioner: the person bringing the dispute or issue to court. You file paperwork first.
Respondent: the other person involved in the case who responds to the filed paperwork.
Before filing a case, you must complete all paperwork that goes with the type of petition you are filing. The instructions for each petition will tell you if there are more forms to file along with your petition.
Step One: Complete the paperwork (petition and other documents)
The first step is to bring your problem or issue to the court’s attention by completing a Petition. This begins the process.
DEFINITION: A petition is a written request to the court for some type of legal action — grant a divorce, for example. The person who asks for legal action is called the petitioner and remains the petitioner throughout the case.
Types of Family Court Petitions:
- Divorce involving relocating (moving) children
- For Support Unconnected with Divorce
- To Modifying Parenting Plan/Time-Sharing, Child Support, Alimony, other
- Disestablishing Paternity (ending child support obligations/not the father)
- Temporary Custody by Extended Family
- Domestic Violence (also known as Interpersonal Violence), Repeat Violence, Sexual or Dating Violence, Stalking
- Stepparent Adoption
- Name Change
- Paternity (fatherhood)
SUGGESTION: The list above may not include all types of petitions. Follow this link to the Family Law Forms page, Press Ctrl+F (the FIND feature) and enter the word “petition” in the search box. The search result will highlight the word on the page each time it appears on the page.
REVIEW: Take the time to review the procedures below about Parenting Plans.
There may also be court hearings or a trial where you can present witnesses or present your case verbally, but the written documents you file are a crucial part of any case. Without them, there would be no case in court.
Next Step: File your case
After completing the petition and all supporting documents, you must file them with your local clerk of the circuit court. This officially opens the case.
Use the FIND A CLERK webpage to find your local clerk of court.
- You may file petitions or other documents electronically; however, you are not required to do so. Read more about E-filing procedures.
What will the clerk do?
- Assign a case number.
- Collect your filing fee or determine if you qualify for a fee waiver.
NOTE: Clerks of Court have their fee schedules posted on their website. If you cannot afford the filing fee or other court costs, you may qualify to have these fees and costs waived by the court. Contact your local clerk of court for more information.
Next Step: Notify the other party
After you file your paperwork and open a case, you must notify the other party. This process is called “SERVICE.” This means the other party has been “served.”
This is the official way to tell the other party (the Respondent) that something is happening to them in court and any scheduled hearings.
Forms for service of process are located in the Subpoenas Forms section of the Family Law Forms page, along with more detailed instructions and information regarding service.
READ: Read the instructions carefully to make sure you have “served” the other party correctly.
There are several ways to “serve” someone:
- Using a deputy sheriff
- Using a private process server
- By Certified Mail
Contact your local clerk of court to find out how to do this in your location.
Responding to the Petition (the Respondent):
The Respondent is called the respondent because he or she is expected to respond to the petition. The Respondent remains the respondent throughout the case.
Filing an Answer
After receiving the Petition, the Respondent may file his or her document to explain their side of the story. This document is called an answer.
An answer is a written response by the respondent that states whether he or she admits (agrees with) or denies (disagrees with) the claims in the petition. Any claims not specifically denied are considered to be admitted.
A counterpetition is a written request to the court for legal action, which is filed by a respondent after being served with a petition.
Some types of Family Court Answers:
SUGGESTION: The list above may not include all types of answers. Follow this link to the Family Law Forms page, Press Ctrl+F (the FIND feature) and enter the word “answer” in the search box. The search result will highlight the word on the page each time it appears on the page.
DEADLINE: After being served, the Respondent has 20 days to file an answer admitting or denying each of the claims contained in the petition.
Counterclaim by the Respondent asking the court for help.
The Respondent may also file a document called a counterpetition if he or she has claims against the Petitioner.
- In a counterpetition, the Respondent may ask for the same or some other help or action not requested by the Petitioner.
- If the Respondent files a counterpetition, the Petitioner should then file an Answer to Counterpetition Form 12.903(d), and either admit or deny the allegations in the Respondent’s counterpetition.
DEADLINE: The Petitioner has 20 days to respond to the counterpetition.
NO Response Received
This is known as “default.”
If the Respondent does not file a response to a petition (an answer), you (the Petitioner) can still move forward with your case — even if the other party will not cooperate.
DEFINITION: Default is a failure of a party to respond to the pleading of another party. This failure to respond may allow the court to decide the case without input from the party who did not appear or respond.
REMEMBER: As the Petitioner, you are responsible for moving the case to the end.
To do this, you may file a Motion for Default with the clerk of court. This means that you may proceed with your case and set a final hearing, and a judge will make a decision, even if the other party will not cooperate.
SOURCE: For more information see:
This is the requirement that each party must give certain documents to the other party.
In divorce cases, each party in a dissolution of marriage must exchange certain information and documents (outlined in the Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure) and file a Family Law Financial Affidavit.
DEADLINE: You must disclose documents within the time required by the Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure (see link below). Failure to meet this deadline may allow the court to end the case or to refuse to consider the claims of the party failing to comply.
SOURCE: For more information see:
- The Certificate of Compliance with Mandatory Disclosure & Instructions (lists the documents that must be given to the other party)
- Rule 12.285, Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure (for documents and timeframes)
- Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure Form 12.902(b) or (c) (Financial Affidavit)
In other cases:
This requirement also must be met in other family law cases, except:
- simplified dissolutions of marriage
- enforcement proceedings
- contempt proceedings, and,
- proceedings for injunctions for domestic or repeat violence
In some areas, a judge might order certain types of cases to go to mediation.
Mediation is a way for people who are having a dispute to talk about their problems and to make decisions about the dispute with the help of another person called a mediator.
The mediator can’t choose sides or provide legal advice. If you go to mediation and you still can’t solve your problems, you can go back to court and the judge will make a decision for you.
NEXT STEP: Schedule your court date
Most of the time, courts follow this schedule:
- Hearings on motions filed
- Final hearings on uncontested (both parties agree) or default cases
- Trials on contested divorces (parties don’t agree)
- All documents are filed including the petition, answer and/or counterpetition.
- All mandatory documents are filed: including disclosure and filing certain papers (including service).
READ: The requirements for service and disclosure are different based on the type of case you and the rules in your local court. For further information, you should check to the instructions for the type of form you are filing.
You should ask the clerk of court or family law intake staff about the local procedure for setting a hearing or trial date. This is done so that the court may consider your request.
NEXT STEP: Go to Court
- Attend your hearing or trial.
- Bring all your paperwork.
- Read about preparing for court and the general rules of behavior and conduct.
ASK ABOUT THIS: The family law forms contain orders and final judgments, which the judge may use. You should ask the clerk of court or family law intake staff if you need to bring any of these (orders or final judgments) forms with you to the hearing or trial.
- Find orders and final judgments.
- If you are told to bring them with you to court, you should type or print the heading, including the circuit, county, case number, division, and the parties’ names, and leave the rest blank for the judge to complete at your hearing or trial.
Final Judgment – a written document signed by a judge and recorded in the clerk of the circuit court’s office that contains the judge’s decision in your case.
Parenting Plans are required if your case involves minor or dependent child(ren).
- The Parenting Plan must be developed and agreed to by the parents and approved by a court.
- If the parents cannot agree, or if the agreed Parenting Plan is not approved, the court must establish a Parenting Plan.
- The Parenting Plan must contain a time-sharing schedule and should address the issues regarding the child(ren)’s education, health care, and physical, social, and emotional well-being.
SOURCE: The below forms are located in the Parenting Plan section of the Family Law Forms page.
- Parenting Plan, Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form, 12.995(a)
- Safety-Focused Parenting Plan, Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form 12.995(b), or
- Relocation/Long Distance Parenting Plan, Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form 12.995(c).