Filing for Child Custody in California: 5 Simple Steps

Before you open case that deals with custody and visitation, consider all your options for deciding custody:

Either parent can follow the steps below to file for custody. If you have an attorney or use another method to decide custody, the person you hire should file your case for you.

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Step 1: Open a case

Begin by opening a family law case with your county's superior court. It might be a divorce, legal separation or annulment. Or the case might be solely about custody and child support. You can also request custody or visitation when you file for a domestic violence restraining order or open a paternity case.

Many types of family law cases bring automatic temporary restraining orders. These prevent either party from changing insurance beneficiaries, taking the child involved out of state without permission, and more. Ask a legal professional if you're bound by a restraining order.

Step 2: Complete your custody forms

Next, you'll complete a request for custody orders. This is when you officially ask the court to make a decision regarding custody of a child. You'll explain who you think should have legal and physical custody of each child and why, plus request child support or money for attorney's fees.

You can add detail to your request with attachments, and you can ask for temporary orders. You'll need to attach any existing custody agreements, restraining orders, or child and spousal support orders.

Step 3: File with the court

Most courts now allow you to file your documents electronically. Many use the Odyssey eFileCA service, but there are other e-filing providers.

To file in person, take your original documents plus two copies to the court clerk. The clerk will stamp your documents and return two of the copy sets: one for you, one for the other parent.

Regardless of how you file, you'll have to pay fees (or apply for a fee waiver).

Once you file, you'll receive a date for your first hearing.

Step 4: Serve the other parent

At least 16 court days before your hearing, you must have the other parent served (i.e., make sure they've received the initial documents in your case).

Generally, someone over 18 who isn't involved in the case must deliver the papers in person, including a blank responsive declaration. In some cases, the papers can be mailed or served electronically.

Either way, the person who handled the delivery will need to complete a form afterward: the Proof of Personal Service or the Proof of Service by Mail.

Step 5: File the remaining forms

You must file the completed proof of service form with the court clerk at least five court days before your hearing. (Again, your court may allow you to do this online.)

If the other parent wants to respond, they file a responsive declaration with the court and serve a copy to you at least nine court days before the hearing.

You are now done with the initial filing process. Hold on to all your papers, and bring them with you to your hearing.

Additional help with your initial filing

For special filings, like requests for emergency court orders, see the California Courts self-help site.

If you are filing on your own, see your family law facilitator with any questions. You should always have your paperwork reviewed by the facilitator or another law professional to avoid issues.

Preparing for what comes next

The next step in the court process depends on your circumstances. Most parents go to orientation or court-ordered mediation, unless they reach settlement first. You could also have an emergency custody hearing.

No matter what's next for you, take advantage of technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom custody calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more.

You can use the app in many ways in California: 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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