Custody Process in Alabama: What to Expect in Court

Each local Alabama court has its own process, and your court will provide information specific to your case. But you can anticipate the main steps.

No matter what process the court asks you to follow, commit to keeping your child's well-being at the center.

The easiest route is usually writing a parenting agreement with the other parent to settle the child custody issues in your case. You can do this at any stage once your case is open. If the judge decides the agreement benefits your child, they'll approve it, and your case will close (unless it still has undecided issues, like dividing property in a divorce).

If you don't settle, your child custody or divorce case will go to trial.

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Before you open a case in Alabama

Wait for the baby's birth

If you're unmarried, wait until your child's birth before petitioning for custody. If you're divorcing, the judge may finalize your divorce while one of you is pregnant, but you'll have to return to court later to address custody issues.

Make sure you're legal parents

You must both be legal parents to have a custody case (or a divorce case that involves custody).

If you're a man and a woman who were married to each other at the time of the conception, pregnancy or birth, your parenthood is automatic. Otherwise, be sure you both have legal parenthood.

Same-sex couples should consult a lawyer, as Alabama family law generally doesn't address LGBTQ individuals.

Talk to the other parent

The more you agree on, and the earlier you do so, the more time, money and aggravation you'll save.

Mediation can help. A neutral professional (often a lawyer who's specially trained) helps you listen to each other, prompts you toward compromise if it seems appropriate and writes up a document for the judge explaining your agreements.

You can find mediators through the Alabama Center for Dispute Resolution. Even before you open a court case, you can hire a mediator and go to sessions.

Get a lawyer

Hiring a lawyer who's experienced in your county can be invaluable. If you can't afford one, see what low-cost legal help may be available. For example, lawyers who offer unbundled services perform specific tasks without taking on your whole case.

If either of you are in the military, your local military office may offer legal help. For example, Maxwell Air Force Base's legal office and Fort Rucker's divorce assistance pamphlet have more information. You may also benefit from thinking about common issues in child custody for military families.

Step 1: Open a case

One parent must open a case and serve the summons. Parents without lawyers have to submit physical paperwork to the court, either in person or by mail, now and throughout the case.

If you're divorcing: When a divorce case opens, the court labels it as contested or uncontested. Contested cases follow the remaining steps, but uncontested cases go to a judge for approval. Uncontested divorces don't usually require a hearing and can finalize as soon as 31 days into the case (though they usually take a couple months).

If you aren't married: Although a child custody case isn't labeled as uncontested or contested, you still go before a judge for approval (and skip the remaining steps) if and when you reach a full agreement.

Step 2: Keep trying to settle

If you see a possible compromise, keep negotiating. If you have lawyers, they can speak to each other on your behalf.

Some large Alabama counties (like Jefferson County) employ mediators, so if the judge orders you to use one, you don't pay anything. In most areas, however, you have to pay for mediation, so the judge considers whether you can afford it. The judge is likely to order mediation if you're able to share the cost or if one parent offers to pay the full amount.

You won't be required to go to mediation if domestic violence is a concern or if the Department of Human Resources is involved in your case.

Step 3: Attend hearings and conferences

A judge may ask for an initial conference to meet you and the other parent. They may want to resolve any miscommunications and better understand the facts of your case, especially if you don't have a lawyer. It could be online or in the judge's office.

You're likely to have other conferences and hearings.

For example, you might have a hearing to decide custody and visitation temporarily.

If one parent doesn't allow the other to see the child, you'll have a hearing about the problem. The judge may require the parent causing the issue to post a performance bond. This is a bit like paying a fine up front and getting your money back if you comply with court orders.

Sometimes, there is a hearing about appointing a guardian ad litem. This person represents the child's best interests.

Step 4: Prepare for trial

You (or your lawyer) can ask the other parent for information to prepare for trial. This process is called discovery.

In discovery, you may send requests in writing to the other parent:

  • Open-ended questions. You can ask up to 40 questions about the other parent's personal situation, parenting approach, home environment, and so on. These questions are called interrogatories.
  • Requests for admission. The other parent must respond to a statement with "admit" or "deny." If they don't deny it, Alabama considers them to have admitted to it.
  • Requests for documents. You can request documents like financial statements.
  • Requests for spoken testimony. You can ask the other parent to testify for up to seven hours while a court reporter transcribes their responses. It's called deposition.

You'll also provide financial information to determine child support.

After you've gathered information you can use in court, you'll have a better picture of what your trial will look like. The same information may help you reach agreement, so a judge could require mediation at this point, even if you tried mediation earlier.

Step 5: Go to trial

If you can't settle all your issues, eventually you'll go to trial. You'll request a trial date, and the court will schedule you. You may wait months, depending on how busy the court is. You can keep trying to settle.

The result of your trial will be a court order that you and the other parent have to follow.

After you have a court order

You can request a change to your order if necessary. A proposed change must be good for the child. Going back to court is always easier when you and the other parent reach agreement first.

Throughout the court process

During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting agreement, draft custody schedules, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

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

With a parenting plan template, customizable custody calendars, a digital parenting journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

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