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The Right to a Lawyer in Family Law Cases

Family, Divorce & Children

This article explains the limited right to a lawyer in family law cases in Texas.

A person in Texas may be able to get a lawyer for a family law case if they have violated a court order or if their parenting rights are at risk. But a lawyer is not guaranteed in cases involving custody disputes, parentage, or divorce.

Am I entitled a lawyer in my family law case?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

See Texas Code of Criminal Procedure article 1.051(c). See also Texas Family Code chapters 107.013(a), 157.163, 262.102(d), and 262.201(a-1).

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.

In what types of family law cases are you not entitled to a lawyer?

Texas law does not entitle an indigent (very low-income) person to legal representation in these types of family law cases:

  • Private custody;
  • Paternity;
  • Divorce;
  • 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.

See Texas Family Code 107.021.

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 Directory tool.

How do I ask for a lawyer if I cannot afford one?

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 link to a Travis County form for low-income parties to use to provide evidence of their indigence and ask for a lawyer (for child protective services cases only). See Affidavit of Indigence and Request for Court-Appointed Attorney. Your county might have its own form. 

Also read How do I get a free criminal defense lawyer? 

The state wants to terminate my parental rights. How do I ask for a lawyer?

If you are a parent whose income is very low in a case to terminate your parental rights filed by the state, you are entitled to an attorney. But, 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.

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Related Forms

  • ABA Directory of Law Governing Appointment of Counsel in State Civil Proceedings) - Texas

    The Texas section of the ABA's compilation of laws, cases, and rules on appointing counsel for civil litigants in state proceedings.
  • Affidavit of Indigence and Request for Court-Appointed Attorney (Travis County - 126th District))

    This is the 126th Judicial District Court of Travis County (December 2015) Affidavit of Indigence and Request for Court-Appointed Attorney form. ...