Child Custody Trials in California: Go In Prepared

A custody trial is like an extended, more formal version of a custody hearing. Parents get to explore all of their evidence and question witnesses so the judge can issue a ruling.

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Preparing for trial

Because your trial will end with a final custody order from the court, preparation is crucial.

If you are working with an attorney, they will guide you through gathering evidence. Your job is to provide everything your attorney asks for and be honest so they can prepare for arguments the other party may be compiling.

If you are representing yourself, be sure only to use evidence permitted under the California Evidence Code. Remember that witnesses can generally not discuss anything they did not personally witness.

In the lead-up to trial, parents gather information about each other through discovery. In the discovery period, each side can depose (interview on the record) the other's witnesses. Each side can also require the other to share personal documents relevant to the case, like emails or financial statements.

Before trial, parents must share a list of their evidence with each other and the court.

Evidence comes in two forms: exhibits and witness testimony.


Exhibits are things you'll present to the judge: documents, charts, screenshots, photos, audio recordings and more. Use anything that proves your fitness as a parent, from videos of you with your children to a calendar showing the times you normally care for them.

Make sure the judge knows what you believe is best for your children by bringing a proposed parenting plan and schedule to trial. Organized, detailed documents that demonstrate your preferences ― like a parenting plan made with the Custody X Change app ― can influence a ruling.

If your trial is in person, bring one copy of documents for the court, one for the other parent, and one for yourself.


Witnesses can be anyone with knowledge relevant to the case. Parents almost always testify as witnesses, but their children usually do not.

There are two types of witnesses.

Expert witnesses are appointed by the court or hired by a parent. They give professional opinions. Examples of expert witnesses are child custody evaluators and forensic psychologists.

Lay witnesses, on the other hand, testify about their personal knowledge of the situation. They do not usually give opinions. They may include family members, friends, teachers, religious leaders, etc. Aside from appearing live, they can also write character reference letters.

It's common for witnesses to testify via a video conference tool like Zoom rather than travel to the courthouse. If you have a witness who will testify virtually, provide them ahead of time with copies of any evidence they'll need. You may not be able to pull up the evidence on screen for them during the trial. You can also practice using the conference tool with them.

Scheduling and timing

Trials often take place months after the last hearing in a case since court calendars fill up and parents need time to gather evidence. More complicated cases usually have longer waits.

To schedule a trial, your judge will ask each side for a trial time estimate. Trials expected to be short (a few hours) can often be done in one sitting. Longer ones may be broken up into sessions spread out over days (not always consecutive) or weeks.

Don't be surprised if your trial gets delayed, due either to the judge's schedule or requests for more time from either parent.


Trials are overseen by a judge. Family law trials don't have juries.

Your trial may be held online, but it's more common to have some witnesses appear virtually while everything else takes place in a courtroom.

Custody trials are open to the public, but the court can make them private in extraordinary circumstances.

At the start of a trial, the parent who made the request for custody orders (the petitioner) has the option of giving ― or having their attorney give ― an opening statement to introduce how they see the case. The other parent (the respondent) has the opportunity next. Most parents skip opening statements because family judges know cases well.

The petitioner also has the first chance to call witnesses and present evidence. He or she can bring up as many witnesses as necessary, provided they were on the witness list filed with the court and the other parent.

Next, the respondent calls his or her witnesses and presents evidence.

Witnesses swear to tell the truth before answering questions from both sides and, sometimes, from the judge.

When both parents have presented, they give closing arguments to summarize their main points.

After a custody trial

Usually, the judge announces their ruling immediately following closing statements, but sometimes they take days or even weeks.

Afterward, one of the lawyers or a court clerk writes the decision up as a court order for the judge to sign.

If you're representing yourself and the judge asks you to write the order, see your family law facilitator for help. You can use Custody X Change documents, like a parenting plan the judge liked, in place of any court form that says "approved for optional use" in the bottom left corner.

Once the final order is signed, it replaces any temporary orders in the case. Your options for changing an order include applying for a modification, appealing to a higher court, or fighting the ruling through other motions.


  • Observe other trials ahead of time, especially ones with your judge.
  • Don't bring your children, unless they are testifying.
  • Dress like you're going to a job interview.
  • Arrive or log in early, and keep your calendar open for the day.
  • Don't talk about the case when you're in or near the courthouse. You never know who might overhear.
  • Don't be too friendly with witnesses who are supposed to appear unbiased.
  • Show respect to everyone. Never interrupt, and refer to the judge as "Your Honor."
  • Be honest when you are testifying; you are under oath.
  • Take your time answering questions, but don't ramble. Give your answer thought, begin with "yes" or "no," and then follow up with facts.
  • Ask for clarification if you don't understand a question, and admit when you don't know an answer.
  • Remain respectful even if you are upset by the judge's decision. You may end up in court again and don't want behavior in the heat of the moment to affect you later.

Staying organized

Going to trial over custody and visitation requires serious organization.

You'll need to present evidence, which could range from messages with the other parent to a calendar showing when you care for your child. You should also present a proposed parenting plan and schedule to the court.

The Custody X Change app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place.

With parent-to-parent messaging, personalized custody calendars, a parenting plan template and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared not only for trial but for every step of your case.

Take advantage of our technology to get what's best for your children.

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