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A Guide to Representing Yourself in Family Court

Family, Divorce & Children

This guide is for parties who do not have a lawyer and are representing themselves in court.
Overview

Guide Overview

People who represent themselves in their court cases are also called:

  • pro se litigants,
  • pro per litigants,
  • in propria persona, or
  • self-represented litigants.

In Texas civil cases, you have the right to represent yourself. See Texas Rules of Civil Procedure 7 and 120. But you should at least talk to a lawyer before representing yourself. Start by looking for legal help in TexasLawHelp's Legal Help Directory.

You will be held to the same standards as lawyers are. Read the ethical rules that attorneys must follow: the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct.

If you face the termination of your parental rights, or have been sued to enforce a family court order, contempt, you may have the right to an appointed attorney. Read The Right to a Lawyer in a Family Law Case.

Research Tips

Start by reading Tips for the Courtroom

Common questions about Court How-Tos (Civil Procedure)

In court, you, the other party, or the opposing attorney can invoke “the Rule.”

The Rule prevents all witnesses (except if a witness is the spouse of a party) from hearing the testimony of other witnesses. If anyone invokes the Rule, your witnesses must sit outside of the courtroom and cannot discuss the case with each other. Your witness(es) may spend all day at the courthouse, so prepare them for the time commitment. 

If you have a minor child witness, you should also let the court know in advance.

Many courts frown upon a minor child missing school for court, and if the case is about that child or children, it is inappropriate to take the child to court without the judge’s permission.

If the case is about which parent the child should live with, and the child is at least 12 years old, they can tells the judge (in the judge’s office, also called "chambers"), who they child wants to live with.

It can be unsafe to represent yourself when family violence is involved. To connect you with an attorney or other local resource to help you move forward with your case, try the TexasLawHelp Legal Help Directory. In the "areas of expertise" pulldown menu, select "protection from violence and abuse." Choose your county from the second pulldown menu on the same page.

Pro se means you are representing yourself in a court case and don’t have a lawyer.

Instructions & Forms

Prepare for court one or two weeks in advance. Follow these steps.

Checklist Steps

Texas courts have the power to make their own rules which explain how they handle cases. These rules are called local rules. 

Many local rules are also county-wide: All of the courts in that specific county have adopted the same rules to apply in each court.

Local rules cover:

  • court procedures (what time is docket call, scheduling issues, etc.),
  • filing legal documents, and
  • other administrative matters, such as appropriate court attire and behavior. 

You must follow the local rules and any applicable federal or state procedural rules when filing legal documents or appearing in a court. But local rules cannot override any federal or state rules.  Local rules only apply in the court that created the rule. Keep in mind that if you are in federal court, the federal rules apply, and if you are in a state court, then state rules apply. 

Failure to abide by the local rules could result in your case not being heard by the judge, or at worst, you could face contempt of court for ignoring court rules. 

Local rules are usually easy to find on the court’s or county’s government website and usually are posted in the courthouse. You could also do a quick internet search for “local rules in ______________ county [include your county’s name].” Make sure you are reading the most current version of the rules. Texas lists its courts' information in its judicial directory

Many times, you can find the court’s dress code in the local rules. If so, then follow your court’s rules for dress and attire. If you cannot find the court’s dress code, then here are some basic rules to consider before appearing in court.

  • You do not have to wear a formal suit and jacket, but if you want to, it is acceptable. Do not feel pressured to purchase one, especially if it is not financially possible. Dress as you would for an important event.
  • Dress pants, slacks, khakis, and even jeans (without holes, tears, or distressed) are acceptable, as are skirts and dresses, at an appropriate length. Do not wear shorts.
  • Button-down, long-sleeved shirts, with or without a tie, are acceptable. 
  • Spaghetti straps, crop tops, halter tops, tube tops, and cold-shoulder tops are not appropriate.  
  • Many courts require visible tattoos and piercings to be covered either with clothing or a band-aid.
  • Do not wear baseball caps, hats, and sunglasses.  Head coverings should be permitted for religious or medical reasons, but ask the court bailiff or administrator about your request before court starts.

Before entering the building, most courthouses require you to go through security (both a walk-through metal detector and security wand). You may have to remove your belt, jewelry, and other items. Consider dressing so that you do not have to take too much time going through the security line.  Also, remove any pocket knives, nail files and clippers, liquids, etc., from your purse, backpack, or bag before entering the building. Otherwise, you would have to carry prohibited items back to your vehicle or dispose of them at the courthouse doors. Do not take weapons into the courthouse.

Be prepared for temperature changes in the courtroom, depending on the time of year and how long you will be in court. If you are hot- or cold-natured, plan to dress in layers or bring a coat or something to stay warm.

Consider your footwear, especially if you have a lot of walking to get to the courthouse or if there are stairs in the courthouse. It is better to be comfortable in an already potentially uncomfortable situation. Do not wear flip-flops.  Some courts require you to wear closed-toe shoes, meaning your toes cannot show, so make sure you are prepared if your court has this requirement.

Planning what to wear in advance can not only save you time getting ready on the day of your hearing, but it could also save you from being turned away from the courtroom itself for inappropriate clothing.

Before appearing in court, you need to ensure you have gathered all of your documents and evidence.  

Types of evidence include, but are not limited to:

  • Testimony. This type of evidence, known as testimonial evidence, is simply a witness giving testimony under oath about the facts of the case.
  • Documents. This type of evidence, called documentary evidence, mainly refers to writings on paper and applies to other ways to preserve information. Other ways to preserve information include audio or video recordings, like 911 calls or through a cell phone video.

Documentary evidence includes, but is not limited to, police reports, diaries, letters, contracts, photographs, tape recordings, and print-outs of digital evidence, such as emails, text messages, and social media content.

  • Tangible (physical) evidence. This type of evidence consists of objects and things that a judge or jury can physically hold and inspect.
  • Demonstrative evidence. Use demonstrative evidence to help explain witness testimony. Demonstrative evidence includes charts, maps, and diagrams.

Witnesses. If you have witnesses going with you to court, they must also follow the same rules of the court, so make sure you share this information with them. Let your witnesses know that they must be there when the docket is called and must testify, in person, unless you have obtained special permission from the court allowing them to testify through phone or video. 

  • The Rule. Also, you, the other party, or the opposing attorney can invoke “the Rule.” The Rule prevents all witnesses (except if a witness is the spouse of a party) from hearing the testimony of other witnesses. If anyone invokes the Rule, your witnesses must sit outside of the courtroom and cannot discuss the case with each other. Your witness(es) may spend all day at the courthouse, so prepare them for the time commitment. 
  • Child witnesses. If you have a minor child witness, you should also let the court know in advance. Many courts frown upon a minor child missing school for court, and if the case is about that child or children, it is inappropriate to take the child to court without the judge’s permission.
  • No written statements. You cannot provide a written witness statement in court as evidencethey must be present to testify.
  • Prepare written questions. You may want to prepare the written questions you are going to ask your witnesses. Always start with asking them to state their full name, date of birth, age, address, where they work, and how they have personal knowledge of any relevant facts. If helpful to the witness, you may want to go over the questions with them as preparation.

Documents/Exhibits. Ensure that for all documents you have to present to the court, you have an original copy for the judge, along with at least three other copiesone for the opposing party, one for the opposing counsel, and one for the court reporter.  The best practice is for the judge’s copy to be one-sided and in color, if possible.  The other copies can be double-sided and in black and white.  You can label the copies with “Exhibit” stickers, or you can handwrite “Exhibit” on the document. Some courts require the pre-labeling of exhibits. Depending on whether you are the Petitioner or the Respondent, you should label your exhibits as “Petitioner’s Exhibit 1”; “Petitioner’s Exhibit 2”; and so on.

Evidence is the way that you can prove or disprove the facts in your case. Gathering, presenting, and admitting evidence can be confusing, but you will be held to the same evidence standards as attorneys if you represent yourself in court without a lawyer. You can find the Texas Rules of Evidence here. Know the rules of evidence and prepare in advance.

Hearing/Trial Outline. You may feel more prepared if you decide what you will tell the judge as part of your case. Create an outline and write down important dates, events, and anything you want to remember to say to the judge.

Practice what you will say so you will feel more comfortable presenting your case and make sure you do not forget anything.

Filing Legal Documents. Read the legal forms filed by the other party. If you do not understand some of the language in the documents, talk to an attorney. If you need to file any legal document, make sure you file at least seven days before your hearing or trial and that you provide a copy of the filed document to the other party. See Texas Rule of Civil Procedure 63.

Required Documents and Proposed Order/Decree. As part of their local rules, some courts require certain documents to be filed before a hearing or at least have them ready at the time of the hearing. These documents may be called a “Proposed Disposition of Issues” or “Proposed Requested Relief.” Many courts also require that both parties fill out financial information sheets or a “Proposed Support Decision” in a contested hearing. Check your Local Rules to know if you need to prepare these documents.

You may also want to prepare a proposed order or decree based on your requested relief if you have time. Orders and decrees can be complex, so check with an attorney if you have any questions about preparing one.

If you need an interpreter for a language other than English, you must request a licensed court interpreter for your court appearance. 

Read How to Ask for a Language Interpreter for Your Case.

Notify the court coordinator or court administrator of your need at least one week before your hearing.  The best practice would be to request your interpreter when you set your case for a final hearing. You must set your case for a final hearing and give the other parent at least 45 days’ notice of the hearing. Read How to Set a Contested Final Hearing (Family Law) to learn more. 

If you have time, visit the courtroom where your hearing will occur before your actual hearing or trial date. Call the court coordinator or check online for the court’s schedule so you can watch what happens in the courtroom without the pressure of presenting your case on the same day. This will help you see how docket call works and how a hearing or trial works, and you may feel less nervous when the day for your hearing or trial comes. 

You can also watch Texas courts’ live streams to get an idea of what to expect. Read Virtual Court.

Forms Required

Know what to expect during your hearing before you go.

Checklist Steps

Arrive at the courthouse at least 30 minutes early to park, go through security, and find your courtroom. You may have to park in a parking garage or around the courthouse in metered parking. Prepare for payment (card and cash to be safe) for the parking meter or garage.

Before entering the building, most courthouses require you to go through security (both a walk-through metal detector and security wand). You may have to remove your belt, jewelry, and other items on your person. Consider dressing so that you do not have to take too much time going through the security line.  Expect to have your personal items inspected, so have everything neatly organized ahead of time. Remove any pocket knives, nail files and clippers, liquids, etc., from your purse, backpack, or bag before entering the building, so you do not have to carry the prohibited items back to your vehicle or dispose of them at the courthouse doors. Do not take any weapons into the courthouse.

Getting to the courtroom early is better than getting there on time. In some counties, the courtroom doors may not open until a few minutes before docket call. Some judges in some counties will lock the courtroom doors once docket call begins, so arrive early if you can! 

Once you enter the courtroom, you may need to check in with a court coordinator or administrator, bailiff, or clerk. This individual will usually sit next to the judge’s bench. Not all courtrooms have someone present with a sign-in, and your official “check-in” may be when the judge calls the docket, or court schedule, for the day. Make sure you are polite to all court staff.

No food or drinks are allowed in the courtroom. Do not chew gum or eat candy.  If you need a cough drop, make sure you ask if that is okay, especially if you are testifying.  Do not smoke, vape, or use chewing tobacco. Once your hearing begins, there may be water available for you on the stand if you are testifying.

Turn your cell phone and any other electronic device off. You may think that silencing your phone or device is enough, but an accidental sound, call, noise from your phone could result in the judge ordering the bailiff to take your phone away. Once your hearing begins and if you need to use a laptop or tablet, you will be able to do so once you take your seat at the counsel table.

Before and during court and between any recess (breaks) of court sessions, you cannot record (audio and video), broadcast, televise, or take photographs. Do not take in equipment capable of doing so. Do not live stream, post, or commentate on what is going on in the courtroom on any social media.

You may have to wait for court to begin or wait while the court hears other cases. Be patient. Some judges do not allow you to bring in books, newspapers, magazines, or electronic devices to read once court begins.

If friends, relatives, witnesses, or legal advocates go to court with you, let them know they must follow these same rules. Do not chat or talk with them in the courtroom after the judge enters.

When it is time for the judge to enter the courtroom, the bailiff will call out, "All rise." You must stand up once the judge enters the courtroom. If you are physically unable to stand, make sure you let the bailiff know before the court session begins. 

In some courts, you will recite the Pledge of Allegiance or Pledge of Allegiance to the State Flag of Texas.

The judge will let everyone know they can be seated and begin to call the docket or the names of cases scheduled for hearings that day.  

Once you hear your case called, you must stand up and announce the following:

  • Your name;
  • Whether you are the Petitioner, the Respondent, or another party;
  • That you are representing yourself;
  • If you are ready to proceed with your hearing, let the judge know you are ready; and 
  • How much time you think your hearing will take.

If you are not ready to proceed with a hearing that day, you need to let the judge know. If you need more time to prepare for a court hearing or trial, you may be able to get a continuance. A "continuance" changes the date of a court hearing or trial to a later date. This article tells you how to ask the judge for a continuance. It will be up to the judge to decide if your hearing will be continued and reset. If you can reach an agreement with the opposing party or opposing counsel to reset the hearing, you can enter into a Rule 11 Agreement. You can find more information on Rule 11 Agreements here.

The judge will let you know when they expect to hear your case. They may ask you to wait in the courtroom, or they may tell you to come back at a specific time or after the lunch hour. Often, judges expect parties and their attorneys to confer or speak to each other about any possible agreements before a hearing. If you have time to do so, it is encouraged, and you can discuss the case outside of the courtroom or in any available conference rooms.

Do not discuss anything inside the courtroom while the rest of the docket is being called. Ask the judge to be excused or to leave the courtroom if you want to confer about your case. If you can reach some agreements, you may want to include those agreements in a Rule 11 Agreement. You can find more information on Rule 11 Agreements here. If you can reach some agreements or a full agreement, you can go back into the courtroom to let the bailiff know you have an updated announcement for the judge, that you have a deal and will not need a hearing at all or that you will need less time for your hearing.

Always stand when the judge speaks to you. When you talk to the judge, call the Judge "Judge ______ (last name)" or "Your Honor."

Because the judge may not call your case right away, you may need to use the bathroom or go in the hall for fresh air. If at any time you need to leave the courtroom, let the court coordinator or administrator, bailiff, or clerk know where you are going.

Once it is time for your hearing to begin, the judge will ask you to be seated at “counsel table.” Take all of your belongings, evidence, and documents with you. The opposing party and their attorney, if any, will sit at the other counsel table. Most counsel tables will have a microphone. Make sure you learn how to turn it on and off or ask for help.

Witnesses. If you have witnesses, you will need to let the judge know that you have witnesses—and they will be called in one by one to give their testimony. You cannot provide a written statement of a witness in court as evidence. You may want to have already written out the questions you are going to ask witnesses. Always start with asking them to state their full name, date of birth, age, address, where they work, and how they have personal knowledge of any relevant facts. Once you finish with a witness, the other party will also have the chance to ask them questions.

The Rule. Any witnesses can stay seated in the courtroom unless someone invokes “the Rule.” “The Rule” is a rule of civil procedure that prevents all witnesses (except if a witness is the spouse of a party) from hearing the testimony of other witnesses. If the Rule is invoked, your witnesses must sit outside of the courtroom. They cannot discuss the case with each other. Your witness(es) may spend all day at the courthouse, so prepare them for the time commitment. 

Opening statements. The judge may ask both parties if they have an opening statement. An opening statement is a brief statement of what you are planning to present to the court, what you believe the evidence will show, what you are asking of the court, and may include any supporting case law or statutes.

Stand when you speak to the judge. Always stand when you address the court or speak to the judge. When the judge speaks to you, stand up. You do not have to stand if you are on the witness stand, though. When you talk to the judge, call the Judge “Judge ______ (last name)” or “Your Honor.” Do not interrupt the judge or speak out of turn if the opposing party or counsel is speaking. You will have your turn to speak.

About being sworn in. When it is your time to testify, the judge will have you raise your right hand and swear to tell the truth.  Perjury—making a false statement under oathis a crime in Texas. See Texas Penal Code chapter 37. So, tell the truth and do not exaggerate when telling your story or answering questions from the judge, opposing party, or counsel. Give complete answers.

Be calm and clear. Speak slowly and clearly because the court reporter will transcribe everything said, or the judge will audio record the proceeding. Say “yes” or “no” out loud. It is not enough to nod or shake your head, and neither the court reporter nor the audio recorder can pick up your nonverbal movements. If you do not understand a question, say, “I don’t understand.” If you do not know an answer, say, “I do not know.” If you need a question repeated, ask for the question to be restated or even rephrased. Stay calm and do not get upset on the stand, even if you are frustrated. Make sure you do not use any obscene or offensive language when testifying. 

You will need to give testimony. Some judges will ask you questions. Other judges will want you to read a “script” of testimony. You can find sample scripts—called “prove-up testimony”—on TexasLawHelp. Read the script ahead of time. Make sure everything in the script is true for you. 

The judge will listen to what you say and review your evidence. Sometimes, the judge may ask you questions. The other party will have this same opportunity, and you will have the chance to ask questions of the other party.

Objections. If the other party begins testifying to something and you have a legal objection, you must stand and tell the judge you “object” to their statement and the legal reason why you object. The judge will then decide if the person on the stand can continue with their statements or not. 

Showing evidence to the judge. If you need to present the judge with any evidence or exhibits, you must ask permission. You can say, “May I approach the bench, Your Honor?” and the judge will let you know if you are allowed to take the exhibit up to the bench. Make sure you also give copies to the opposing party and the opposing attorney.

No recordings. During court and between any recess (breaks) of court sessions, you cannot record (audio and video), broadcast, televise, or take photographs. Do not take in equipment capable of doing so. Do not live-stream, post, or comment on what is going on in the courtroom on any social media.

Ending testimony and resting the case. Once you finish testifying and have called the witnesses you wanted, and the court has accepted your exhibits, you can let the judge know that you have finished presenting your case. You may tell the court that you “rest.” Then, the other party will have the opportunity to present their case if they did not present their side of the case first. 

The court's decision. Once both parties have presented their sides of the case, the judge will make a decision or ruling. Sometimes, a judge may call a break, or recess, before giving their ruling. A judge may also not decide that day and take some time to review the evidence presented and do additional research. This is called taking the case “under advisement.” If the judge decides to take your case under advisement, they will let you know when to return to court for the ruling, or they will let you know how they will deliver their ruling, usually in a written document. 

If the judge grants your requests, then you may present the judge with your proposed Order or Decree. If not, then an Order or Decree will need to be prepared to match the judge’s ruling.

Forms Required

Court may be over, but there is more to do. 

Checklist Steps

Deadlines. Once your hearing is over, you want to make sure that you understand any deadlines given by the judge. One deadline may be for a de novo hearing, if your case was heard by an associate judge. See Texas Family Code 201.015. The more common deadline is for appealing a judgment.  This article discusses appellate timelines. Speak with a lawyer immediately if you do not understand these certain deadlines. Once the court loses power to make rulings or act in your case, you may lose out on your chance to properly contest the court’s ruling.

Orders and Obligations. You also want to make sure that you understand any obligations and orders given to you by the judge. This may include who prepares the final Order or Decree, any payment obligations, or any other order associated with your case. Following your Order or Decree is important to avoid any future legal action for violating or not following the court’s orders. Failure to follow your court order could result in an enforcement lawsuit against you.

Make sure that a final Order or Decree is signed by the judge if one is not signed on the day of your hearing. Not having a precise order or any order at all could result in legal problems down the road, including enforcement issues with visitationchild support, or in a divorce, a property and debt division. Consider getting either a regular copy or a certified copy of your Order or Decree once it has been signed by the judge and filed with the clerk’s office. Call your clerk’s office to find out what the cost is to get these types of copies.  For any concerns about your children, certified copies are usually required for law enforcement, schools, and some medical providers.

Other orders may also be required to be signed by the judge. If you have child support, the judge will need to sign an Income Withholding Order for Support so that child support can be taken out of the obligor’s (the person required to pay child support) paycheck. You may also have a name change order if you are changing your name as part of your divorce. Make sure you know which orders you need to finalize your case.

If your case is setting up child support for the first time, then the Texas Office of the Attorney General requires this Record of Support form to be completely filled out and signed. You can submit the completed form to the clerk.

Texas’ Vital Statistics Unit requires this VS Form-165 to be filled out for all divorce cases and suits affecting the parent-child relationship, except for adoptions. Make sure this form is filled out and provided to the clerk. 

Forms Required

Articles in this guide