Alabama Child Custody & Visitation: Laws, Rights & More

In Alabama, custody is determined as part of divorce, legal separation (an alternative to divorce) and custody cases between unmarried parents.

It's easier for judges to decide when parents already agree on what they want. If parents can't settle, their case goes to trial, where a judge considers evidence and hears from witnesses.

A person must be recognized as a legal parent for a court to award them custody, visitation or child support.

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Types of custody

Legal custody is about decision-making. Physical custody is about where the child lives. Either kind can be joint or sole.

Legal custody

Whether parents are divorcing or were never married to each other, judges usually start with an assumption of joint legal custody. The court officially prefers that outcome unless there is a reason to give sole legal custody to one parent.

Regardless of the legal custody arrangement, both parents can access their child's information kept by doctors, psychologists, schools, sports teams and police (unless a judge says otherwise). Also, each parent makes day-to-day decisions during their parenting time, including any emergency decisions that may come up.

Physical custody

Sole physical custody (aka primary physical custody) is often awarded because it simplifies record keeping. For example, it allows a clear answer when the child is asked for their address. This is common in Mobile, Montgomery and some other counties. The other parent usually still has visitation on a regular basis.

Judges sometimes award joint physical custody, especially if parents agree on it. Joint physical custody means each parent gets significant (but not necessarily equal) parenting time.

A judge may order supervision of a child's time with a parent who's not awarded physical custody. You may hear this called restricted physical custody.

Where a child's safety is concerned, the Department of Human Resources (DHR) is often involved. Parents sometimes sign a DHR safety plan, which may commit a parent to supervised visitation or similar solutions; a safety plan is always voluntary.

It's rare for a parent to be prevented from seeing their child. As long as both of a child's parents can act in the child's best interests, Alabama law prioritizes "frequent and continuing contact" with both parents.

How custody is decided

The judge considers the child's educational and emotional needs, religious background, family relationships and more. The parents are evaluated on their abilities to meet the child's needs, including their home environments and transportation options. This is true in both settlements and trials, although the level of examination in trial is far greater.

No preference is automatically given to mothers or fathers. Alabama no longer assumes that babies and small children belong with their mothers.

The judge may consider a child's preference for a custody arrangement (if the judge believes they're mature enough to offer one). Judges try to keep siblings together.

Sometimes an issue like child support is heard by a judicial referee, who makes a recommendation to the judge. The judge usually accepts it.

Settling out of court

If you're having difficulty compromising, your options include mediation and collaborative law. Three-quarters of mediated divorce cases reach a settlement, according to the Alabama Center for Dispute Resolution.

An important part of your settlement is deciding how you'll co-parent. Bring a suggested parenting agreement and schedule to negotiations. When you agree, you'll submit your final version to the court together, and the court will approve it if it's in the child's best interests.

If parents can't settle, the case proceeds to trial, where the judge may hear witness testimony.

Expected length of a case

There's no guarantee your case will wrap up in any specific time frame. Your process and outcome depend on how you treat each other, how you negotiate, how well you prepare for court and whether you have a lawyer to represent you.

The court isn't permitted to finalize any divorce until you've had a "cooling off" period of 30 days from the day you file. Realistically, even an uncontested divorce takes about two months, and a contested divorce takes six months to a year (depending on the nature of your argument).

There's no required "cooling off" period for parents who aren't married to each other. If you've already written up your custody agreement, you may not even need a hearing. The judge could approve your agreement and make it a court order in a matter of weeks. But if you have undecided issues — for example, paternity or child support — expect your case to take at least four months.

Each time you formally send information to the other parent and give them a deadline to reply, it delays resolution of your case.

You may have to wait a couple months just to be scheduled for a court hearing, depending on how busy the court is.

Expected costs

Your court case incurs fees, and the outcome of your divorce or custody case will affect your finances.

Legal fees

It costs about $300 to open your case, though fees vary between courthouses.

If you have an uncontested divorce, some lawyers will charge you a flat fee of about $500 (or a bit more if your situation is complex) to take care of the paperwork. This is in addition to court fees.

Otherwise, expect to pay a lot more for a lawyer. You'll see Alabama family lawyers charging about $300 an hour to represent you. If you can't reach agreement with your co-parent, expect thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Some cases that go to trial cost each parent tens of thousands.

Mediators (who are often lawyers) charge a rate similar to other lawyers. However, the Alabama Center for Dispute Resolution offers free mediation to parents who together make less than $60,000 a year. A mediator helps you reach a settlement, which can speed up your case. How many sessions you have depends on what issues you need the mediator's help to resolve.

Judges often order parents to take a parenting class, especially if a child in the case is under 16. They'll tell you which classes fulfill the requirement. These tend to be about $50 and are often online.

Your future finances

The parent with less parenting time usually pays child support to the parent with more time. There are guidelines to estimate the amount, but a judge has some flexibility.

Child support continues until the child turns 19, Alabama's age of majority. It might stop a little earlier if the child marries or joins the military.

If you're divorcing, the judge may order one of you to pay alimony (spousal maintenance) to the other. There's no formula. The judge decides the amount and puts the details (e.g., conditions for payments to stop) in the final divorce decree.

You can ask to modify child support or alimony later.


Circuit courts and district courts determine custody for tens of thousands of Alabama children every year.

Divorce cases are heard in circuit court. In large counties, the circuit court has a specialized domestic relations division. Child custody and child support are decided as part of divorce cases.

Cases about the children of unmarried parents usually go through district court. (In some counties, however, they may go through circuit court.) The judge can decide paternity if needed, as well as custody and child support.

Jefferson County has a separate family court, often called juvenile court, which handles juvenile delinquency (misbehavior), dependency (neglect or abuse), paternity and child support.

Whichever court system you go through, your entire case and any follow-up actions will tend to stay in that system. If your case is transferred to another court system, a new case number will likely be assigned.

Special circumstances

Every family situation is unique, but check to see how situations like yours are generally handled.

Legal separation, common-law marriage and covenant marriage

If you're separating from your spouse but aren't ready or able to divorce, you can seek a legal separation. You may hear it called a limited divorce or a divorce from bed and board. It's reversible. As with divorce, you must provide a ground (legal reason). The court won't permanently divide your assets, but it may tell you how to handle money during your separation (e.g., through alimony and child support).

Alabama may recognize your common-law marriage if you met the criteria (e.g., using the same last name, sharing a bank account, etc.) in 2016 or earlier. Evidence from 2017 or later won't be considered because Alabama has passed a law to stop recognizing common-law marriages.

You can divorce in Alabama even if you had a covenant marriage in another state before moving. Alabama recognizes these as ordinary marriages and does not have special restrictions on dissolving them.


Once you have a custody order, if one parent plans to move at least 60 miles or across a state line and thereby change the child's primary residence, they must notify the other parent by certified mail at least 45 days in advance (or, if that's not possible, within 10 days of learning they're moving). The other parent has 30 days to formally object.

If a parent moves far away (for example, internationally), a judge may order virtual visitation.


It costs nothing to file a Petition for Protection From Abuse (often referred to as a PFA). If the request is approved by a judge, the alleged victim receives an immediate protection order that lasts until the court can schedule a hearing. Then the alleged abuser is asked to appear, and the court may set a one-year protection order.

If a child who isn't considered an Alabama resident has an emergency situation (e.g., abuse or abandonment) while in the state, an Alabama court may claim temporary emergency jurisdiction so they can act.

Legal help

Hiring an experienced family lawyer can help you reach a good outcome for your child. Especially because Alabama court processes vary locally, consult someone familiar with the judge's attitude and requirements.

Legal Services Alabama is the state's biggest provider of legal aid as well as the only nonprofit that offers free legal representation. Parents who already agree on all issues in their divorce or custody case, or who have a domestic violence issue, can apply for help. You have to meet income guidelines.

Pro bono services are offered through volunteer lawyers programs (VLPs):

Especially if you're representing yourself, consult Alabama's child custody laws in Title 30, Chapter 3.

Staying organized

The process of deciding child custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple parenting time schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

Our professional sources

Imani Global Law LLC
Victoria D. Relf, Kynesha Adams Jones and Adele Baker Underwood
Montgomery, AL

J. Hardy Family Law
Jessie Hardy
Mountain Brook, AL

Lagman Law Office
Henry E. Lagman
Hoover, AL

Law Office of Mitchell J. Howie & Associates PLLC
Mitchell J. Howie
Huntsville, AL

Law Offices of Jacklyn D. Morton LLC
Jackie Morton
Gadsden, AL

Leigh Daniel Family Law
Leigh Daniel
Huntsville, AL

Woodruff & McCaney LLC
Maurice McCaney
Florence, AL

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