Child Custody Lawyer

Child custody is the term used to describe a parent’s rights and obligations towards their child. When two unmarried people have a child, or a married couple divorces, decisions must be made about who will care for and support that child. When the parents are unable to agree, the courts must decide. A child custody lawyer can determine what is in the child’s best interest, and assist you with the legal process. Keep reading to learn more about the child custody lawyer.

What Does a Child Support Lawyer Do?

Child custody can be the most difficult aspect of a divorce, especially if the parents are not on the same page about custody, child support, and visitation. When the parents are unable, or unwilling to work it out amongst themselves, the court will decide who will have custody. Custody is not an issue that pertains only to divorcing parents, however. Unmarried couples with a child are also subject to child custody cases as are family members of a relative that is an unfit parent.

There are two main types of child custody: legal and physical. Legal custody refers to the rights and responsibilities of a parent by specifying who can make major decisions for the child when it comes to education, medical needs, healthcare, and overall welfare. It is becoming more common for judges to order joint legal custody, which involves both parties making decisions about the child’s life.

Physical custody addresses who will have day-to-day responsibility for the child. It determines where a child will reside and, whenever possible, the court orders joint physical custody so that the child spends time in both parents’ homes. If a person is awarded sole physical custody, the child resides with that parent full-time, but may visit the other parent on a scheduled basis.

All states try and base custody arrangements on what is in the best interest of the child. Whenever possible, courts favor joint custody as this gives the child an opportunity to build a strong relationship with both parents. It has many other benefits including lessening the sense of rejection and loss that a child can experience during a divorce.

When handling custody cases, the courts consider a number of factors when determining who gets custody including:

  • Who the primary caretaker is
  • Physical and mental health of parents
  • Special needs of the child
  • Interactions and relationships with other household members
  • Evidence of drug or alcohol abuse
  • Adjustment to school and the community

Many states require mediation or parenting classes in custody cases. Under court ordered mediation, parents meet with a family mediator to work through the details of custody and visitation.

A child custody lawyer, also known as a “family law attorney,” will advocate for their client and help create a custody agreement that is in the child’s best interest. If the parents cannot come to an agreement, the attorney petitions the court for custody on the client’s behalf. A lawyer experienced in child custody cases will also guide you through the legal process and paperwork, represent you should the case go to court, and negotiate child support rates.

Professional Requirements to Become a Child Custody Lawyer

The process to become a child custody lawyer takes hard work and commitment. The first step involves completing an undergraduate program to earn a bachelor’s degree. There is no specific field of study required for admission to law school, but in general, pre-law students major in political science, criminal justice, or business administration.

After receiving a bachelor’s degree, one must take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Undergraduate GPA and LSAT score are two of the main factors when it comes to law school admission. If the student passes the LSAT and is admitted into law school, they will spend three years studying law before receiving a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) degree. They can also complete internships, clerkships, or legal clinics during this time to gain experience and broaden career prospects.

Once the individual has a J.D. degree, he must take the Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) (this does not apply to residents of Maryland, Wisconsin, and Puerto Rico). This exam ensures an individual’s conduct and professionalism meet the American Bar Association (ABA) standards. If they pass the MPRE, the last step required to become a child custody lawyer is taking passing the bar exam. This two-day exam is broken down into state and multistate sections. If a lawyer wants to practice law in additional states, he must take the bar exam in each one of those states.

Additional Education and Experience

After completing law school, one can continue their education and receive a Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree. This internationally recognized program gives students a deeper understanding of the law as well as global credibility.

Additional Licensing Requirements

In all states, there are additional licensure requirements for practicing child custody lawyers. Continuing Education is the most common, as this keeps attorneys up-to-date with the laws and case precedent. The amount of hours required varies by state. Generally, these Continuing Education courses must be completed every one to three years.

Where Can You Work as a Child Custody Lawyer

There are multiple options when it comes to where you can work as a child custody lawyer. You can work in a large firm, or as a solo practitioner. Typically, attorneys working at a firm or in a private practice earn a higher salary than solo practitioners.

Another option is to become an attorney for the state government. In child custody cases involving neglect and/or abuse, the court may appoint an attorney to represent the child(ren) or involved. This court appointed attorney advocates on behalf of the child by assessing the situation and providing the court with an unbiased view of what would be in the child’s best interest.

You can also work as a public interest attorney for a non-profit organization. This type of lawyer often works with civil legal services organizations to provide free or reduced representation to low-income individuals.

How do Child Custody Lawyers Get Paid

Child custody lawyers almost always charge an hourly rate, though they may simply prepare documents for a flat fee. In the case of an hourly rate, a retainer fee is likely to be requested. The retainer is an advanced payment that is placed in a special account for the lawyer to use as he works on the case. The amount of retainer requested will depend on the overall estimated costs.

Flat rate fees are often reserved for uncontested child custody cases. In uncontested cases, the parties involved work out an agreement in regard to custody, visitation, and child support. This usually gets the case moving more quickly through the legal system and reduces the costs involved. It also allows attorneys to predict with reasonable certainty how long it will take to close the case.

When a custody case is contested, or complicated in some other manner, it is more common for an attorney to charge an hourly rate. For this type of arrangement, the client is charged for the actual amount of time the lawyer has spent working on the case.

The amount charged by a family attorney, whether it’s hourly or flat-rate, depends on several factors including experience and geographical location. Attorneys with experience are usually more familiar with different areas of the law, with the attorneys likely to represent the other parent, and with the family court judges, and charge higher fees for their services. Location also plays a role in how much child custody lawyers get paid since those practicing larger cities cost more on average than those in rural areas.

Child Custody Lawyer Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (“BLS”) Occupational Outlook Handbook, the median annual salary for child custody lawyers is $119,250 ($57.33/hr.) as of 2018. Unfortunately, this is the average for all lawyers as the BLS does not list the average salary for each field of practice separately.

Lawyers working with large firms or private practices tend to earn more on an annual basis than solo practitioners or public interest attorneys.

Employment Outlook for Child Custody Lawyer

According to the BLS, the employment rate for lawyers is expected to increase around 8%, between 2016 and 2026. This is the average rate for all occupations in the United States.

Hiring a Child Custody Lawyer

For most people, divorce or separation is a very stressful event, and even more so if children are involved. With emotions already running high, disagreements over child custody can intensify the conflict between the parents. Naturally, parents want to keep their child with them, but this may not be in their best interest. A child custody lawyer can help parents come up with an arrangement that is beneficial to all parties involved.

Since the outcome of a child custody case can significantly impact not your family’s future, hiring a family lawyer with experience and expertise is vital. The lawyer you hire should also be familiar with state custody laws, have great communication skills, and be willing to stand up for your rights.

The attorney representing you will likely learn personal details about your life, so it is essential to hire one that you feel comfortable with. You should choose a lawyer that you trust, and that you feel you can build a strong rapport with. It may take meeting with several attorneys before you find the one that is best for your case.

How to Find the Right Child Custody Lawyer

Finding the right child custody lawyer entails more than a quick internet search or flip through a phone book. It requires knowing where to look and then meeting with potential attorneys to decide if they will be an asset to your case.

Asking family, friends, and other professionals in your life for recommendations of a family lawyer is perhaps your best option. You can also ask a lawyer you know, even if they practice in a different area of the law. Many know other lawyers in the area and whether they are reputable or not.

If unable to get personal or professional recommendations, another way to find the right child custody lawyer is by visiting online attorney databases. These databases have a list of practicing lawyers and you can narrow the choices by selecting your location and the area of law. The bar association website for each state also provides a list of attorneys.

Essential Information

Degree Level Juris Doctor (J.D.), Master of Laws (LL.M.) is optional
Degree Field(s) Law
License/Certification Licensure in state of practice
Key Skills Critical thinking, negotiation, verbal and written communication, familiar with family law, ability to research, analytical, compassionate
Number of Jobs (2016) 792,500
Job Outlook
8% growth rate (average growth rate)
Median Salary (2017) $119,250*
On the Job Training Moderate term of on-the-job training
Top Earners Top earners in the field are generally employed by large law firms

(*Source: the BLS)