How to File for Custody in Alabama & Serve Papers

Here's how to file in Alabama for child custody. You can file as part of a divorce, or you can open a case to decide custody when you're not married to the other parent.

If you're divorcing, your case will be categorized as contested (if you're asking the judge to decide anything) or uncontested (if you're already in full agreement about your divorce outcome).

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Divorces go through circuit court. Custody cases for unmarried parents (as well as paternity cases) go through district court. The court that determines your custody case is also likely to handle your child support.

Lawyers use Alabama's e-file system. This can speed your case and help you meet deadlines. Without a lawyer, you'll have to file by mail or in person at the courthouse.

Another benefit of having a lawyer from the beginning of your case is that they can give you personalized advice about how to complete the initial forms; the court clerk can't give you legal advice.

Your roles as plaintiff and defendant

All cases — whether you're married or not, arguing or not — have a plaintiff and a defendant. The plaintiff is the parent who opens the case. The defendant is the parent who responds.

Only the plaintiff pays a filing fee. Ask your local court clerk what filing a case there costs (usually about $300). If you can't afford the filing fee, complete an Affidavit of Substantial Hardship, sign it in front of a notary and submit it to the court.

The defendant doesn't pay to respond. However, the judge could order the defendant to reimburse the plaintiff for various costs, which is one reason for the defendant to comply with all court requirements in a prompt and respectful manner.

Planning your custody request

Legal custody is about major decision-making for your child. Physical custody is about caring for them day-to-day.

For each type, you'll request either sole or joint custody. Alabama courts prefer to award joint legal custody and to allow both parents to have "frequent and continuing contact" with the child.

If you're not married to the other parent

File in the county where the child lives, and ask your district court what forms it requires.

If you're in a sole custody situation, one of these forms might fit your needs:

A lawyer or court clerk can help if neither of those cover what you want to ask for.

In any case involving a child, you'll need to submit child support information. (See Child support information below.)

Write and submit a parenting agreement as soon as possible, ideally when you open your case. Even if you aren't able to agree with the other parent, submit a proposal. This document can speed your case. It also supports a good outcome for your child.

Once you've filed your paperwork, you'll need to serve the other parent. (See Serving papers to the other parent below.)

If you're divorcing the other parent

File in the Alabama county where you or your spouse currently lives or where you used to live together.

If you moved to Alabama without your spouse, you must live in the state for six months before you can start your divorce. The court may require someone uninvolved in the case to confirm that you're a resident.

A lawyer will know how to write a complaint for divorce that involves a minor child. If you don't have a lawyer, ask your local circuit court what forms are required to start your case.

You'll need to state your ground for divorce. It might be that you're incompatible or that your marriage is irretrievably broken; either leads to a no-fault divorce. If you accuse your spouse of wrongdoing, you'll have a fault divorce, which is more complex.

Regardless of the ground, both of you will need to submit financial information. (See Child support information below.)

Once you've filed your paperwork, you'll serve the other parent. (See Serving papers to the other parent below.)

Other details about filing for divorce depend on whether you've reached an agreement.

If you've reached agreement (uncontested divorce)

Your divorce is uncontested if you agree on all issues. Write a marital settlement agreement, including a parenting agreement and a child support amount (using the state's formula as a starting point).

You'll submit all the paperwork, and a judge will decide whether your custody agreement is in the child's best interests. From the day you file your complaint — depending on how quickly you sign paperwork and how busy the court is — the court may take a couple months to finalize your divorce, but they may do so in as little as 30 days.

Some lawyers charge a flat fee of about $500 to help you complete and submit paperwork for an uncontested divorce case.

If you haven't reached agreement (contested divorce)

Your divorce is contested if the two of you disagree on any issue related to the case or if the plaintiff can't locate or communicate with the defendant.

As part of the divorce complaint, the plaintiff should briefly describe any requests they anticipate being unable to settle. This lets the court know what the judge may need to decide. However, you should (if possible) continue trying to settle those issues with the other parent.

Submit your proposed parenting plan when you know what you're asking for. Judges are impressed when you prioritize your child's best interests and present your requests in an organized way.

Contested divorce cases typically last about six months while parents wait for each other's responses and attend court hearings. Some cases go on for a year or more.

Serving papers to the other parent

Once you've filed your initial paperwork, you must provide copies to the other parent and prove to the court that you did it.

You can give the initial paperwork to the other parent yourself if you're comfortable and if they'll sign a Waiver of Service. Then you can skip the steps below. But if the defendant won't waive service, you'll have to serve them.

Step 1: Plaintiff serves the defendant

If you have a lawyer, they'll take care of this step.

If you don't have a lawyer, send the paperwork you used to open your case and any other required documents to the other parent. You may do this by:

  1. Certified mail. Ask for the delivery receipt to be returned to the court clerk, along with your case number. Complete an affidavit informing the court that you mailed the paperwork.
  2. Sheriff or constable. The court sends the papers directly to the sheriff in the county where the other parent is to be served. The sheriff may charge you for this — about $25 if your court case and the sheriff are in the same county but about $50 if they're not.
  3. Professional process server. You'll provide them with the papers. Search for a server near the other parent, since they charge about $50 to serve someone in their own county and more if they must travel.
  4. An adult willing to do you this favor. Pick someone who is at least 19 years old, unrelated to you and not involved in your case. Make sure they follow the service rules in Alabama's Rules for Civil Procedure.
  5. Publication. If the other parent can't be found or can't receive certified mail, then — especially if they're deliberately avoiding service — a judge may say that publishing the information in a newspaper counts as service.

Step 2: Defendant responds to the case

If this is a petition for child custody (not a divorce), the defendant has 14 days to respond.

If this is a divorce complaint, the defendant has 30 days to file an Answer to Divorce Complaint. If the defendant says they have no issue with what the plaintiff asked for, the divorce will be uncontested.

The defendant should look for the correct response form on the court website or ask the court clerk. The form may be county-specific. If the defendant has a lawyer, the lawyer will take care of this.

If the defendant doesn't respond, the plaintiff can pay $50 to apply for a default judgment, which allows the judge to rule based on the information the plaintiff provides.

Keeping up with court notices for your case

Typically, you'll receive court notices in the mail, but you may be able to request to receive notices by email or text instead.

Child support information

Whether you're unmarried or divorcing, you generally have to submit financial information to help determine child support.

Submitting these forms as early as you can may speed your case. These are commonly required for first-time child support cases and for requests to change support:

Child Support Information Sheet, aka Domestic Relations Information Sheet — You each fill out your own to give your basic information at the beginning of the case.

Child Support Obligation Income Statement/Affidavit — This form indicates your current income. Each parent submits and signs their own copy.

Child Support Guidelines — This worksheet calculates the amount the court is likely to order. The court only needs one copy of this worksheet. If you trust each other's math, it doesn't matter who fills it out. Alternatively, you may each submit your own copy.

Child Support Guidelines Notice of Compliance — If you're settling with the other parent, you must either affirm that you followed the standard calculation or else give a reason why you're asking for a different amount. You both sign at the bottom.

Preparing for what comes next

You'll need a parenting plan. Try to agree on a plan with the other parent. If you do, you might not need a hearing at all.

If agreement isn't possible, make your own plan to propose to the court. The next step in your case will most likely be a hearing.

Either way, you can use the Custody X Change parenting plan template.

The online app suggests what to include while giving you the freedom to write custom provisions.

Turn to Custody X Change for a court-ready plan that supports your child and your custody request.

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