Filing for Child Custody in Arizona: 4 Steps to Open a Case

The process for obtaining orders for legal decision-making and parenting time officially begins when a parent files (opens) a case.

Before filing, consider your options for getting orders.

  • You can settle with the other parent and have a judge approve your agreement.
  • For help reaching an agreement, you can turn to mediation, collaborative law or other alternative dispute resolution methods.
  • When all else fails, you can ask a judge to make custody decisions in a trial.

Married parents unsure about divorce can request free, short-term marriage counseling from Conciliation Court before or after either spouse opens a case.

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If you have a lawyer, they'll prepare and file your court forms for you. If you're representing yourself, follow the steps below to open a case, keeping in mind that your county may have additional requirements.

The parent who opens the case is referred to as the petitioner, and the other parent as the respondent. Both may be referred to as litigants.

Step 1: Complete forms

You can download the forms to open your case from the state's self-help website or your county's website. Or, you can create them with AZTurboCourt. (If filing in Maricopa County, use ezCourtForms instead.)

Both divorcing and unmarried parents should complete the:

  • Sensitive Data Cover Sheet with Children
  • Affidavit Regarding Minor Children
  • Summons
  • Order and Notice to Attend Parent Education/Information Program Class
  • Parenting Plan

Experts recommend creating your own parenting plan (which includes a parenting time schedule) instead of using the court's template, which isn't detailed enough for many families. Simply attach your custom parenting plan to your other court forms.

Divorcing parents should complete these additional forms:

  • Petition for Dissolution of a Non-Covenant Marriage (Divorce) with Minor Children or Petition for Legal Separation with Minor Children
  • Preliminary Injunction
  • Notice Regarding Creditors
  • Current Employer Information Form
  • Notice of Your Rights About Health Insurance Coverage

Unmarried parents should complete the Petition for Court Order for Paternity and Legal Decision-Making, Parenting Time, Child Support, and/or Vital Records.

Parents can also complete motions for temporary orders at this time if they can't agree how to co-parent for the duration of the case.

Your signatures must be notarized, so don't sign any forms until you're with a notary public or the court clerk.

Step 2: Submit forms and pay filing fees

Submit your forms to your county's Superior Court. In most counties, you can submit your forms online through Arizona's e-filing system. Otherwise, submit at least two paper copies (in addition to the originals) at the court clerk's office.

Filing fees vary depending on your case. Expect to pay between $100 and $200 when you file. Your county may have additional costs, including fees for motions (e.g., a request for temporary orders), notary services and copying forms.

If you can't afford the fees, you may be eligible for a deferral or waiver. Submit a request along with your other paperwork.

Step 3: Serve papers

You are required to formally notify the respondent about the case by having them served — in other words, by getting them copies of your filing paperwork. You also need to submit proof to the court. Arizona allows multiple service options, each with different requirements.

Acceptance of service

If you and the other parent can cooperate, you can personally deliver the papers to them. Include your county's Acceptance of Service form, which they must sign in front of a notary or court clerk. Then, you'll submit the form as proof of service.

Certified mail

Alternatively, you can send the papers via certified mail or another courier service that requires the other parent to sign for the delivery. When the delivery receipt is returned to you, complete your county's Affidavit of Service with Signature Confirmation form, attach the delivery receipt, and file both with the court.

Private process server

Another service option is hiring a private process server, who hand-delivers the papers to the other parent. The server fills out your county's Affidavit of Service form and returns it to you for filing.

Service by county sheriff

Your county sheriff's office also delivers papers for a much lower fee than private process servers. If you have an approved court fee deferral or waiver, you may not have to pay for this method. In some counties, you can request service by the sheriff's office from the court clerk when you file your case; otherwise, take your papers to the sheriff's office.

The sheriff's deputy who delivers the papers will fill out your county's Affidavit of Service form and return it to you for filing with the court.

Service by publication

If you attempt any of the above methods (except for acceptance of service) without successfully reaching the other parent, you'll need to serve them by publication. You must pay to have a service notice published in a newspaper in your county and the county of the other parent's last known address (if different).

The newspaper will complete your county's Affidavit of Service form and send it to you. Attach a copy of the published notice, and file both with the court.

Step 4: Wait for the other parent's response

To participate in the case, the other parent must file a response (also called an answer) that addresses the requests in your petition.

If you serve them by certified mail, they have 25 days from when they receive the papers to file a response. With all other service methods, they have 20 days from when they receive the papers.

When the other parent files a response that agrees with all your requests, your case is uncontested and moves on to the settlement process.

When the other parent files a response that disagrees with anything in your initial filing paperwork, your case is contested and continues through the litigation process.

If the other parent doesn't respond by the deadline, you can ask the court for a default judgment.

Preparing for what comes next

No matter what comes next, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom parenting calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more. You can use it to put together proposals for the other parent, negotiate, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.

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

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