The Right to a Lawyer in Family Law Cases
This article explains the limited right to a lawyer in family law cases in Texas.
Usually, you are not entitled to have a lawyer represent you in a family law case (like divorce, child support, and custody).
Texas law does entitle a low-income person to legal representation in a family law case under two circumstances:
- Civil contempt in enforcement proceedings. Texas law states that indigent defendants have a right to an attorney if the court decides that the defendant could go to jail as a result of a case to enforce visitation or child support. However, this right is limited to the contempt portion of the case—the court does not have to appoint an attorney for the entire enforcement proceeding.
- Termination of parental rights cases filed by the state. Indigent (very low-income) parents—including certain alleged fathers—have a right to an attorney in termination of parental rights proceedings filed by the state. This right extends to appeals as well.
The American Bar Association has published a Directory of Law Governing Appointment of Counsel in State Civil Proceedings, and if you look in the section that focuses on Texas, you will find an overview of the laws concerning Texas' limited right to counsel in civil cases.
Texas law does not entitle an indigent (very low-income) person to legal representation in these types of family law cases:
- Private custody;
- Private termination of parental rights;
- Adoption; or
- Voluntary relinquishment of parental rights.
Courts can—but do not have to—appoint an attorney for any indigent person in the following types of cases:
- Private custody disputes; and
- Private terminations of parental rights.
Asking the court to appoint counsel for you in these cases can be complicated. If you have questions, use Ask a Question to chat online with a lawyer or law student, or use the Legal Help Finder tool.
An indigent defendant could face jailtime as a result of an enforcement action. So a common concern when that happens is how to ask for a lawyer.
If the court determines that jail is a possible result of the enforcement case, the court must tell you about the right to be represented by a lawyer. If you are indigent (very low income), the court must tell you about your right to the appointment of a lawyer.
TexasLawHelp has a form for low-income parties to use to provide evidence of their indigence and ask for a laywer (for child protective services cases only). See Affidavit of Indigence and Request for Court-Appointed Attorney - Template. Your county might have its own form.
If you are an indigent parent in an action to terminate parental rights filed by the state, you are entitled to an attorney. However, the timing of exactly when the attorney will be appointed under these circumstances is up to the court. So to ensure an attorney is appointed for you in a timely manner, include a request for appointment of counsel when you file your answer contesting the termination. This request will trigger an inquiry by the court into whether you are indigent and, if the court finds that you are indigent, will result in the appointment of an attorney.