No. You do not have to have a lawyer when you go to court. In California, several hundred thousand people each year go to court without a lawyer. This is called being in "pro per" -- the legal term for a person representing him or herself without a lawyer. However, some cases are complicated. This is when a lawyer can be most helpful.
You may find that you need a lawyer if:
- anyone involved has an estate with substantial assets;
- anyone involved lives outside of California;
- there are some other legal proceedings going on at the same time;
- anyone involved has special needs (physically/emotionally disabled);
- anyone involved is a member of the armed services, or
- anyone involved is Native American (in which case, federal laws may apply).
Lawyers are trained to research the intent of laws and judicial decisions and apply the law to the specific circumstances you face. In addition to skills in legal research, a lawyer will usually have:
- familiarity with courtroom rules and procedures;
- an understanding of when a witness is needed, and how he or she should be prepared for a trial;
- an understanding of when an expert, consultant, or investigator is needed – where to find such a person, and how much is reasonable to pay; and
- experience with different strategies for effective presentation of a case in court.
If you cannot afford to hire a lawyer there are several options that may help.
- Every superior court in California has legal help available in family law and in small claims cases. Several superior courts can also help you with other legal issues. Find out what services are available at your court.
- There are legal aid offices in many cities throughout California. These are non-profit organizations that provide free legal services to people below a certain income level. Find free and low-cost legal help in your area and find out what areas of law they cover.
- If you don’t have much money but the other party in your case does, the court might order the other party to pay for some or all of your lawyer’s fees. (You would have to ask the court for this. It is not automatic.)
- Many bar associations have Modest Means Panels made up of lawyers who will take certain kinds of cases for a reduced fee. (You would have to find your local bar association and ask if it could help you with this.)
- You may be able to find a lawyer who will coach you on representing yourself (called "coaching"), or who will only handle (and charge you for) the more complicated parts of your case. This is called "limited scope representation" or "unbundled legal services.” (Your local bar association may have a list of lawyers who do limited scope representation.)
Generally, lawyers specialize in a particular area of the law. They may specialize in trial law (civil or criminal), bankruptcy law, elder law, family law, etc. When working with a lawyer, it is important to know his or her specialty.
NOTE: A lawyer cannot represent you in Small Claims court but they may help you prepare for your case.
If you decide to hire a lawyer, make sure you understand:
- what you will be paying for,
- how much it will cost, and
- when you will be expected to pay your bill.
You may want to talk to several attorneys before you hire one.
- Go to the State Bar of California’s Lawyer Referral Service.
You can also find attorneys listed in the Yellow Pages of the telephone directory, or through the internet.
- Get more help finding free and low-cost legal aid.
Paternity means fatherhood. Both legally and biologically, the word paternity designates the identity of the father of a child.
When a woman gives birth to a child, she is almost always the legal mother of that child. She has rights and duties for the child as the child's mother. For a father it is different.
Every child has a biological father. If the father was never married to the mother of the child and his paternity was not established, most likely California does not give him any rights to or responsibilities for the child. To be the legal father, paternity has to be legally established.
Establishing parentage is very important for a child.
It gives him or her entitled the same rights that a child whose parents are married or in a domestic partnership have. These rights may include:
- Support from both parents.
- Legal documentation of who his/her parents are.
- Access to family medical records.
- Medical and life insurance coverage from either parent.
- Inheritance protection.
- Social security and veteran's benefits.
Once parentage is established, the court may make orders for child support, health insurance, child custody, visitation, name change, and restraining orders.
Here are some of the different ways a man can be a father and the rights and responsibilities he will have:
- "Presumed" Father
The law will presume a man to be the father of a child under the following circumstances:
- he was married to the mother when the child was conceived or born.
- he tried to marry the mother (even if the marriage was not valid) and the child was conceived or born during the "marriage."
- he married the mother after the birth and agreed to have his name on the birth certificate or to support the child.
- he welcomed the child into his home and openly acted as if the child was his own. This means that a man can be found by the Court to be the legal father, if he has always treated the child as his own. This is true even if he is not the biological father.
NOTE: Sometimes there is more than one "presumed" father. If this is the case, you may need to consult with a lawyer with experience in this area of law.
- Unwed Father
If the mother and father are not married at the time a child is conceived and born, he is not automatically recognized as a legal father. In order to be recognized as a legal father, an unwed father must either sign a Declaration of Paternity or be determined to be the legal father by a court judgment of paternity.
A stepfather is not required to support the children of the person to whom he is married unless he legally adopts the children.
- Alleged Father
When a child is being given up for adoption, a man who believes he is the biological father of the child is called the alleged father until the court determines parentage.
- Fathers through Adoption or Surrogacy Agreements: Men can become legal fathers through adoption or surrogacy. These are complicated legal processes, and you may need to consult an attorney.
There are 2 ways a man, who is not married to the child's mother, can get his name on his baby's birth certificate. He can:
- Sign a Declaration of Paternity (at the hospital or later), or
- Legally establish paternity through the courts.
Once paternity has been legally established, the father's name can be added to the birth certificate:
- Request a copy of Form VS 22 (Application to Amend a Birth Record-Acknowledgment of Paternity) from the Local Registrar of Births and Deaths.
- Complete the form.
- Make a copy of it for your own files.
- Give the original to your county's Registrar, along with the fee.
DNA determines our individual traits, like eye color. Our body's cells contain a complete set of our DNA. Each of our sets of DNA is completely unique to us (unless you're an identical twin).
A child will inherit part of their DNA from their biological mother, and some from their biological father. Therefore, by comparing the DNA code of a man, woman and child, their relationship to one another can be established.
DNA results must be admitted into evidence at a hearing or trial to establish parentage.
DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid, is the biological material that determines a person's physical characteristics. It is found in almost all of the cells in the body, and each person's DNA is unique.
Some of a person's DNA coding is inherited from the mother. Some of the DNA coding is inherited from the father. Therefore, by comparing the DNA coding of a mother, father and child, their parental relationship can be established.
Samples of a person's DNA can be taken by gently rubbing a sterile cotton squab (like a Q-tip) inside his or her mouth. Saliva contains DNA, as does the rest of the body.
- If the Department of Child Support Services performs the test, normally there is no charge to either named parent.
- If the court orders the named parents to get DNA testing, there may be fees of several hundreds of dollars to have the testing done.
NOTE: The court will NOT accept private DNA testing as evidence in a paternity case, unless the test has been ordered by the court.
- If the court orders DNA testing, it will provide the named parents with the information they need to get the tests done.
- The court will not accept DNA tests done at home, or in a private medical facility.
The Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) is the state agency responsible for child support enforcement.
Each county has a local DCSS office that can help parents establish parentage and child support orders, and collect the support owed.
The Department will help any parent who requests help.
- If the person requesting help is receiving welfare, DCSS will handle the paternity and child support case automatically, without an application being requested.
- If the person requesting help is not receiving welfare, he or she will have to apply to get help from the DCSS. The Department will mail out applications, if asked, or applications can be picked up at a DCSS office.
The Department will do everything necessary to:
- Establish parentage.
- Get a child support order and a medical support order.
- Locate a parent and find his or her income and/or assets.
- Enforce and collect orders for support.
- Get an increase in an existing order, if needed.
The DCSS lawyers do not represent either parent or the child. They represent the public.
If the Department of Child Support Services is involved in a case, it can make the final decision about child support enforcement.
- If one parent disagrees with its decision, that parent may be able to file a motion with the court. The Family Law Facilitator may be able to help with this.
- Both parents have the right to seek advice from a private lawyer or legal aid at any time.
If the DCSS is involved in a case, it will assign a case number to it. If the court is involved in a case, it will assign a court case number to it. It's important to use the DCSS number when communicating with DCSS, and the court case number when communicating with the court.
The purpose of the Declaration of Paternity form is to legally establish who the father of the child is. It is for cases where a mother and father are not married to each other.
A properly signed form has the same effect as a court order establishing parentage for the child.
If both parents agree that the man is the father of the child, signing the Declaration of Paternity (CS 909) form establishes the man as the legal father.
- No one can force either the father or the mother to sign the form.
Once the declaration is signed, the form must be filed with the California Department of Child Support Services "POP Unit" in order to be effective.
The Declaration of Paternity form can be signed in the hospital at the time the baby is born. It can also be signed later.
If the father is at the hospital when the baby is born, both parents will be given a chance to sign the form.
Before either parent signs the form saying he's the legal father, they both must be told orally and in writing about the legal consequences of signing the Declaration of Paternity.
- He will have all of the rights and responsibilities of a legal father and can be held responsible for
- He will have the right to seek a court order for visitation or
child custody of his child.
- He gives up the following rights:
- Right to trial in court to decide the issue of paternity.
- Right to notice of hearing on the issue of paternity.
- Right to present and cross-examine witnesses.
- Right to have an attorney represent him.
- Right to have an attorney represent him if he cannot afford one in an action filed by the local child support agency.
Signing the form will have the same effect as a court order of paternity.
A Declaration of Paternity form can be filled out any time after the child's birth.
If the parents do not sign the form in the hospital, both parents must complete it and sign it in front of a notary public and mail it to the:
State Department of Social Services
744 P Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Telephone: (916) 445-6951
You can get a Declaration of Paternity form from:
- the Family Law Facilitator.
- the Department of Child Support Services.
- the Registrar's Office in your county,
- the court.
- county welfare departments.
The Family Law Facilitator may be able to help complete a Declaration of Paternity form.
If either of the child's parents is under18, he or she may sign the Declaration of Paternity.
However, it will not establish legal paternity until 60 days after both of the parents are 18, or are legally emancipated.
Same-sex couples cannot sign a Declaration of Paternity. Only a birth mother and a biological father may sign the Declaration of Paternity.
If a child was born during a same-sex marriage or domestic partnership, California law presumes that both parents are the legal parents of the child. Other states may not make the same presumption, however.
Same-sex parents can try to establish or confirm parentage by filing a parentage or stepparent adoption case.
Copies of filed Declarations of Paternity are available to:
- the child.
- county child support services agencies.
- county welfare departments.
- county counsel.
- the courts.
A parent may request a copy by sending a "Parents Request Form for Declaration of Paternity" (CS 918) or a letter to:
DCSS - POP Unit
P.O. Box 419070
Rancho Cordova, CA 95741–9070
Include the following information about the child and the parents:
- Child's Name (First, Middle and Last).
- Child's County of Birth.
- Child's Date of Birth.
- Mother's Name (First, Middle and Last).
- Mother's Date of Birth.
- Father's Name (First, Middle and Last).
- Father's Date of Birth.
The parent making the request must also include the following identifying information:
- Requester's Name.
- Requester's Mailing Address and Telephone Number.
- FAX Number.
- The Requester's Relationship to the Child.
The requester must sign the request form.
Allow 10 working days for your request to be processed.
If you have any questions about how to request a filed copy of a Declaration of Paternity form, please contact the State POP Coordinator.
If either parent changes their mind about signing the Declaration of Paternity, he or she has 60 days to file another form canceling the Declaration of Paternity.
This is done by using this form: "Rescission Form for the Declaration of Paternity" (CS 915).
The Rescission Form cancels the legal parental relationship created by the "Declaration of Paternity."
It must be filed with the California Department of Child Support Services within 60 days after the Declaration was signed.
- If the mother and father signed on different dates, use the most recent date.
- Only one parent needs to sign, but the form must be signed before a Notary Public.
- Either parent can use this form to cancel the Declaration of Paternity.
A letter to the other person named as parent must be sent by certified mail, return receipt requested, advising him or her that the Declaration is being canceled.
A copy of this letter and receipt must be sent to:
P.O. Box 419070
Rancho Cordova, CA 95741-9070
NOTE: If a court case relating to custody, visitation, or support occurs less than 60 days after the Declaration of Paternity form was signed, the court may be asked to cancel the Declaration of Paternity form.
If there is already a court order on custody, visitation, or support, the Rescission form will not work. In that case, contact the Family Law Facilitator, legal aid, or a private attorney for help.
If a mother or the Department for Child Support Services claims that a specific man is the father of a specific child and the man is not absolutely sure that he is, he has to the right to have a genetic test to determine conclusively whether or not he is the father.
If the man has signed the Declaration of Paternity form and then has become unsure if he is the father, there are ways for him to
After 60 days pass, the requirements for canceling the Declaration of Paternity form are more difficult, so it is very important that he is absolutely sure he is the father before he signs the form.
If a woman is sure that a specific man is the father of her child but he will not sign a Declaration of Paternity form, she may ask the court to help her. She can do this by filing a paternity case.
The first step to filing a paternity case is to be sure that the case is started in the correct county. This is referred to by the court as "proper venue."
A paternity case should be started in the county in which the child lives or is normally found.
- If you are not sure where the child lives, you can start the case in your county, but the judge may decide later that another county or state should handle the case.
- Make sure that there is not another paternity case already started for your child in another county. There should only be one paternity case for a child.
If there is more than one child with the same mother and father, then only one case is needed to cover all of the children.
However, if the children have different fathers, a separate paternity case will be needed for each child.
Paternity can be established for a child if the father lives in another state. A man can sign a "Declaration of Paternity" voluntarily declaring he is a child's father even if he lives in another state.
If he does NOT want to sign the form, the mother can ask the Department of Child Support Services in the county in which she lives to open a case to establish paternity. The local child support agency can work with the other state to establish paternity.
YES. The mother can open a case with the Department of Child Support Services when she is still pregnant.
If the man the mother believes is the father denies it, a genetic test can be ordered after the baby is born. (Some labs will only perform genetic tests after a child is six months of age or older.)
Genetic tests can be scheduled through the Department of Child Support Services in the county where the mother lives.?
In most cases, you have to pay a fee to file papers with the court.
If a person can’t afford the court’s filing fees, there are forms he or she may file asking permission to not pay all or some of the court fees and costs. This is called getting the fees “waived,” and fee waiver packets are available at the courthouse for free, or can be downloaded from this site.
Eligibility for the fee waiver is based upon the person’s household income or if he or she is receiving public assistance. If a person files a fee waiver but is found not to be qualified, he or she must pay the appropriate filing fees.
To see if you qualify for a fee waiver, read:
- Information Sheet on Waiver of Court Fees and Costs
If you qualify for a fee waiver, select the forms you need.
NOTE: If you get a fee waiver but then collect money because you win the lawsuit, you may have to repay the court for the waived fees.
All of the information in paternity court cases is private. The only people who can look in the court file are:
- the mother and father,
- and the Department of Child Support Services if it is involved in the case.
If you are either the mother or father in the case, and you want to look at the court file, you need to bring a driver's license or government identification card with you to the court.
You may bring a witness to court to testify if the person is properly qualified and the information he or she will provide is relevant to the issues. You may also give the court written testimony of a witness that is prepared as a declaration. You may use this form:
- Declaration (Form MC-030)
If you decide to bring a witness, give some thought to what you expect him or her to say, and how that is important to the orders you want the court to make. Remember that the court time is usually very limited, so be sure the information the witness will provide is helpful and relevant.
Prepare, file and serve a witness list
If you intend to call live witnesses at your hearing you must prepare a witness list before the hearing. This list must include the names of all witnesses you intend to call, as well as a brief description of their expected testimony.
Once you have finished this list:
- Make two copies of the list - one for the court and one for your spouse or partner. Then take (or mail) the original and two copies to the court to be filed by a court clerk.
- You must serve a copy of this list on your spouse or partner.
- Make sure your witnesses know how to find the court and what time to be there. It might be a good idea to give them a copy of the checklist on this website for how to dress and how to behave in court.
NOTE: If you do NOT file and serve a witness list before the hearing, the court may postpone your hearing to a later time. The court could also make temporary orders to be obeyed until the new hearing takes place.
Lawyers, parties, witnesses, jurors, or other people may make confidential requests for accommodations from the court.
If you have a disability and would like to request an accommodation, you may fill out a:
- Request for Accommodations by Persons With Disabilities and Response (Form MC-410).
See the instructions for this form.
- You can also make your request by writing a short letter to the court.
Requests can be made at any time, although you should give the court at least 5 court days’ notice if possible.
Once parentage of a child is established, the court may make orders for child custody and visitation.
The paperwork for custody may be submitted at the same time as the request to establish parentage, or it may be submitted at a later date.
If two people are named as parents of a child, they need to make some decisions about their parenting responsibilities. For example, they need to decide who their child will live with, who will make the decisions about the child's health, education, and so on, and when, where and how often the other parent can visit with the child.
For help finding local court forms you may need, go to your county's court website.
Parents may use this Judicial Council form to show what arrangements they are asking the judge to approve:
- Child Custody and Visitation Order (Form FL-341)
Notice that there is a difference between:
- Legal custody (the person who makes decisions about health, education, etc.),
- Physical custody (the person the child lives with), and
- Joint custody (the parents sharing their parental responsibilities)
There are California Family Codes which spell out what the law says is in the best interest of children. For this reason, the Judicial Council has created some forms to help people make parenting agreements that follow these laws. Parents don't have to use these forms, but they could help.
- Supervised Visitation Order (Form FL-341(A))
- Child Abduction Prevention Orders Attachment (Form FL-341(B))
- Children's Holiday Schedule Attachment (Form FL-341(C))
- Additional Provisions – Physical Custody Attachment (Form FL-341(D))
- Joint Legal Custody Attachment (Form FL-341(E))
If the parents DO NOT agree about how they want to share their parenting responsibilities, either of them may file a motion to get a court hearing. Then the judge will decide the responsibilities of each parent.
Once parentage of a child is established, the court may make orders for child support.
The paperwork for support may be submitted at the same time as the request to establish parentage, or it may be submitted at a later date.
Find local court forms you may need at your county's court website.
To request child support, the following forms are to be attached to the Judgment form filed with the court:
- Child Support Information and Order Attachment (Form FL-342)
See the instructions for this form.
This form becomes the court order when the judge signs it.
- Notice of Rights and Responsibilities for Health Care (Form FL-192)
No input is required; just read and attach form to Judgment.
- Child Support Registry (Form FL-191)
This form registers the case in a national registry to help with enforcement. Normally it is filed with the court clerk at the same time as the Judgment form.
- Order/Notice to Withhold Income for Child Support (Form FL-195)
See the instructions for this form.
This form orders the paying parent's employer to withhold child support from that parent's paycheck and send it to the other parent.
NOTE: Child support can become complicated. You may wish to talk to the Office of the Family Law Facilitator or the Department of Child Support Services in your county, or to seek advice from and attorney.
If the court has been asked to order one parent to make child support payments, BOTH parents must fill out and file a:
- Child Support Case Registry (Form FL-191).
The Child Support Case Registry is a national database that is used to locate absent parents.
- When you file the form, the information will be put into the database.
- The form is confidential and will not be put in the court file.
Normally, the parent asking the court to order child support files a completed Registry Form FL-191 along with the court order. The other parent must file the form within 10 days after he or she received the support order.
- HOWEVER, if the local child support agency is involved in this case, you deliver this form and any updates to the form to the local child support agency, instead of to the court.
You must tell the court or the local child support agency if your address or phone number changes. It is also important to make sure that you tell DCSS whatever the other parent has a change of income and employment.
- To let them know about the change, get a new copy of the "Registry" (form FL-191), fill it out, and deliver it to the court or local child support agency within 10 days of the change.
If a man receives papers seeking to establish him as the father of a child, he needs to respond right away.
Sometimes, if the man does not think he is the biological father he ignores the papers. This is a BIG mistake. As the court summon states: "If you do not file your Response on time.... You may be ordered to pay support and attorney fees and costs...."
- If the man SIGNED the Declaration of Paternity form (CS 909) – and changes his mind less than 60 days later – he can
ask to get the form canceled.
- If the man SIGNED the Declaration of Paternity form (CS 909) – and more than 60 days have passed – he can
go to court to ask to get the form canceled.
- If the man NEVER SIGNED the Declaration of Paternity form and has been summoned to court, he has
30 days to respondand say that he is not the father.
NOTE: California law states that the deadline to contest a paternity claim is 2 years from the date of birth, or from the time that paternity was established.
(California Family Code, Section 7541)
There are a few other reasons to ask the court to set aside judgments of paternity and child support.
If you find out that there is a judgment of paternity, or a judgment for child support against you, contact an attorney or your local Family Law Facilitator immediately. There are complicated legal motions that you should not try to file on your own.