6 Steps to Child Custody: Indiana Family Court Process

Going to court for legal custody and parenting time in Indiana involves six 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 the 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 Indiana'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 Circuit Court or Superior Court (known informally as family court) in their county.

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 Indiana for six months, and at least one must have lived in the county where the case is filed for three months.

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

When the petitioner files a case, they're required to serve the other parent formal notice by sending them copies of the court paperwork. You can't personally deliver the papers to them — they must be served by certified mail or in person by a sheriff or private server.

Once served, the respondent is not required to file a response to participate in the case. They can file a counter-petition if they want to request something that the other parent didn't include (spousal maintenance, temporary orders, etc.).

If you agree with the other parent on all of the issues in your case and don't need temporary orders, your case moves on to the settlement process.

Otherwise, your case continues with the steps below.

Possible: Provisional hearing for temporary orders

Also called provisional orders, 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 either parent requests temporary orders, the court holds what's called a provisional hearing in which both parents can present evidence and argue their side to a judge.

If parents can agree on how to manage custody and parenting time for the duration of their case, they don't need to ask the court for provisional orders.

Step 3: Discovery (continues throughout)

Discovery is a multi-part process in which parents exchange information and the evidence they're preparing. It begins soon after filing the case and continues until the weeks before the final custody hearing.

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

Step 4: Parent education class

Most counties require parents to complete a parent education class. Typically, both parents must complete the class within 60 days of filing the case.

Parenting classes are offered online and in person by certified private agencies and, in some counties, the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau. They provide information on the effects of divorce and separation on children and strategies for effective co-parenting.

Both parents must take a minimum four-hour course, but they don't have to take it together. Each parent pays a fee: $25 to $75, depending on the provider.

Possible: Motion hearings

Throughout the case, either parent can file motions, which formally ask the court to do something. Motions require hearings in which both parents can submit evidence to argue for or against the request.

Common motions include requests for a custody evaluation or guardian ad litem.

Step 5: Mediation

Judges almost always order parents to attend one mediation session, especially when one parent asks the judge to do so. Cases involving domestic violence are exempt.

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

Some counties offer free or low-cost mediation through the Domestic Relations Counseling Bureau.

Alternatively, parents can agree to hire a private mediator, whose fees are typically $200 to $300 an hour. (Parents share the cost.) This allows parents to choose a professional with expertise specific to their case (complex finances, a child with special needs, LGBTQ families, etc.). 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 6: Final hearing

Any issues the parents still can't agree on are decided by the judge in a final custody hearing. Contact your court clerk for the paperwork required to request and schedule the hearing. Married parents must wait at least 60 days after opening their case before they can request a final hearing.

At the hearing, both parents (or their lawyers) present evidence and question witnesses to support their requests for legal custody, parenting time, child support and more. The judge may also interview the child without parents present.

The judge considers parents' arguments and evidence along with any reports and recommendations from a court-ordered custody evaluation or guardian ad litem investigation.

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 that both parents must follow or face legal consequences.

Throughout your 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 parenting time 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.

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

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