7 Steps to Custody: Arizona Family Court Process

Going to court for legal decision-making and parenting time in Arizona typically involves seven steps. Depending on your case and county, you might skip some steps or have them in a different order.

At any point in the process, you can settle your case by agreeing with the other parent on a parenting plan, a parenting time schedule, child support and any other issues in your case.

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Before you start the court process

Ideally, you should hire a lawyer to help you come up with a legal strategy, complete and file paperwork, negotiate with the other parent and, if necessary, argue in court. If you can't afford an attorney, you may be able to use legal aid services or other low-cost programs.

Consider using an alternative dispute resolution method, such as mediation or collaborative law, to help you and the other parent reach a settlement before you open a case, which expedites the court process.

Familiarize yourself with Arizona's family law statutes and the procedures in your court.

Step 1: Opening a case

Either parent can file paperwork to open a case with the family division of the Superior Court in their county (known informally as family court).

Married parents can file for divorce or legal separation (both result in a parenting plan and a child support order). At least one spouse must have lived in Arizona for 90 days.

Unmarried parents can file for a parenting plan and child support, as well as paternity testing, if necessary. There's no minimum residency requirement when parents aren't married.

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

Step 2: Serving the other parent

Serve the other parent, which formally notifies them about the case. Depending on how they're served (in person or by mail), they have 20 or 25 days to file a response.

If the other parent files a response that agrees with everything you requested in your initial filing, your case is uncontested and moves on to the settlement process.

If the respondent disagrees with anything, your case is contested and continues with the steps below.

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

Step 3: Parenting class

Arizona requires all parents in custody cases to take a parenting class. Offered by your county's Conciliation Court and certified private agencies, the class provides information on the effects divorce and separation have on children and parents.

Both parents must take a minimum two-hour course (in person or online) within 45 days of opening the case, but they don't have to take it together. The maximum cost for the class is $50 per person. If a parent fails to complete the course, the judge won't issue final orders.

Possible: Conciliation Court (married parents only)

Conciliation Court is a division of court that, among other services, helps married parents avoid divorce.

A spouse can petition for conciliation services anytime before a divorce or legal separation case. After a divorce or separation case is opened, either spouse has 60 days to request conciliation services.

A request for services puts a minimum 60-day hold on the case while spouses work with a free marriage counselor to attempt a reconciliation.

If spouses don't reconcile, they continue with the process below.

Possible: Temporary orders hearing

If either parent requests temporary orders, the court holds a hearing so both parents can present evidence and argue their side to a judge. Temporary orders might include a parenting plan, parenting time schedule and arrangements for child support or other financial issues. Typically, they remain in effect until replaced by final orders.

If parents can agree on how to manage legal decision-making and parenting time while their case is in progress, they don't need to ask the court for temporary orders.

Step 4: Resolution management conferences

In a resolution management conference, parents and their lawyers (if applicable) meet with a judge or family law facilitator to discuss disputed issues, settling options and next steps.

Most courts hold a resolution management conference early in the litigation process.

Maricopa County also offers an early resolution conference for self-represented parents. This is an even earlier meeting with a family law facilitator who helps parents try to resolve some or all of their disagreements.

Step 5: Discovery (continues throughout)

Discovery is a multi-part process in which parents exchange information and the evidence they're preparing. It begins when a parent files a contested response and continues until the final weeks before trial, often ramping up after a resolution conference.

Failure to comply with your court's discovery requirements can negatively affect your case and be considered contempt of court.

Possible: Evaluation, parenting conference or court-appointed advisor

Under some circumstances, the court may order an evaluation, parenting conference, or court-appointed advisor so a custody expert can gather information about your family.

Through interviews and reviews of family records, the professional assesses what's in children's best interests and writes a report that's sent to the judge and both parents. The report includes recommendations for a parenting plan, parenting time schedule and other possible requirements (e.g., counseling or substance abuse treatment). If a child expresses a reasonable custody preference, it's also included.

Judges don't automatically order everything in the recommendations, but they give them great weight when making decisions.

Step 6: Mediation

Most counties order parents to attempt one mediation session before they can request a trial (except in cases involving domestic violence). Parents can also request mediation services at any point in the litigation process.

In mediation, an expert in dispute resolution and family law helps you and the other parent compromise on a parenting plan, time schedule, etc. You're not required to settle your case, but it's strongly encouraged.

You can get mediation through Conciliation Court for $100 per parent per three-hour session. The court assigns a mediator to your case, and you'll wait a month or more for your session.

Alternatively, you can agree with the other parent to hire a private mediator, whose fees are typically $250 to $350 an hour (parents share the cost). This allows parents to choose a professional with expertise specific to their case (e.g., complex finances, children with special needs, or LGBTQ families). Private mediators also have greater scheduling flexibility than court-provided mediators.

Regardless of the mediation option you choose, be sure to contact the court clerk for your county's mediation paperwork.

Step 7: Trial

Any issues the parents still can't agree on are decided by the judge in a trial. Contact your court clerk for the paperwork required to request and schedule a trial.

At the trial, both parents (or their lawyers) present evidence and question witnesses to support their requests for legal decision-making, parenting time, child support and more.

The judge considers parents' arguments and evidence along with any reports and recommendations. The judge may announce their decisions immediately, but sometimes they first call a recess (a break) for hours, days or, in complex cases, weeks.

The judge's decisions become final orders in the form of a parenting plan with a parenting time schedule (in all cases involving custody) and a divorce decree (in divorce cases only). Child support is a separate order.

Throughout the case

During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting time schedule, write a parenting plan, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

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

With customizable parenting calendars, a parenting plan template, a digital journal and more, 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.

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