Filing for Child Custody in California: 5 Steps

Before you open a custody and visitation case, consider all your options for deciding custody:

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If you choose to settle or litigate without an attorney, either parent can follow the steps below to file for custody. If you have an attorney or use another method to decide custody, the person you hire should file your case for you.

Step 1: Open a case

Begin by opening a family law case with your county’s superior court. It can be a divorce, a request for a domestic violence restraining order, a paternity case or a petition for custody. The kind of case will depend on whether you’re married, whether there’s been domestic violence, and more.

Many types of family law cases bring automatic temporary restraining orders (ATROs). These orders prevent either party from changing insurance beneficiaries, taking the involved children out of state without permission, and more.

Ask your attorney or a legal professional if you are bound by a restraining order, and how it may apply to your situation.

Step 2: Complete your custody forms

Next, you’ll complete a request for custody orders. This is when you officially ask the court to make a decision regarding custody of a child.

You’ll explain who you think should have legal and physical custody of each child and why, plus request child support or attorney’s fees. You can also file additional documents to add detail to your request or ask for temporary orders until a judge can issue a final ruling. You’ll need to attach any existing custody agreements, restraining orders, or child and spousal support orders.

Step 3: File with the court

Take three copies of everything to the court clerk, and pay the fee (or apply for a fee waiver). Confirm that your court doesn't require any special, additional forms. Then the clerk will stamp your documents, set a hearing date, and return two of the copies: one for you, one for the other parent. The original documents remain with the court.

Step 4: Serve the other parent

At least 16 court days before your hearing, someone over 18 who is not involved in the case must deliver the papers to the other parent in person, including a blank responsive declaration. In some cases, the papers can be mailed; check the "Court Order" section of your request for order. Either way, the person who handled the delivery will need to complete a form afterward: the proof of personal service or the proof of service by mail.

Step 5: File the remaining forms

You must personally file the completed proof of service form with the court clerk at least five court days before your hearing. If the other parent wants to respond, they must file a responsive declaration with the court and serve a copy to you, at least nine court days before the hearing.

You are now done with the initial filing process. Hold onto all your papers, and bring them with you if you have a hearing.

Additional help with your initial filing

For special filings, like requests for emergency court orders, see the California Courts self-help site.

If you are filing on your own, see your family law facilitator for any questions. You should always have your paperwork reviewed by the facilitator or other law professional to avoid issues.

Preparing for what comes next

The next step in the court process will depend on your circumstances. Most parents will go to orientation or court-ordered mediation, unless they reach settlement first. You could also have an emergency custody hearing.

No matter what’s next for you, take advantage of custody technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change app offers tools like a parenting plan template, personalized custody calendars and a shared expenses tracker. You can use the app in many ways in California: to negotiate, prepare evidence, file for settlement and more.

Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can file with the court.

Make My California Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can file with the court.

Make My Plan