Kentucky: Filing for Child Custody

Filing for custody of your child is one of the most important decisions you'll make. Child custody, visitation and child support are determined as part of a divorce or, if you aren't married to the other parent, as its own court case.

If you have a lawyer, they'll draft your initial divorce or custody petition — or your response to the other parent's petition — and file it with the court for you. Without a lawyer, you'll have to do this yourself.

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Knowing where to file

If your child lives in Kentucky, your case probably belongs in the state.

If you're divorcing or legally separating, file in the county in which you or your spouse lives. At least one of you must have resided in Kentucky for at least 180 days (six months) before you file, and you may be asked to name a witness who can confirm this. Active military duty in Kentucky counts toward residency.

If you're not divorcing, file in the county where your child lives. The child must have been a Kentucky resident for at least six months — or since birth, if they're an infant.

Your case will be in a Kentucky circuit court (not a district court). If there's a family court, that's the one you want.

Once you find your circuit court, consult its rules. These often have useful information, including guidelines for parenting plans and parenting time schedules.

Paperwork and what it costs

Filing together may speed up your case, as you won't have to serve papers to the other parent, and you can tell the court you've already reached agreement. If filing together isn't right for you, one of you can file the case and serve the other.

If you don't have a lawyer, speak to your local court clerk. They can provide your court's forms and tell you about procedures and deadlines. You'll probably have to submit on paper, though some counties may allow you to e-file.

One required form is the petition (sometimes called a pleading). Each court uses a different version. To get a sense of what a petition looks like, see the custody packet from the Children's Law Center.

You'll also need to submit a Summons, unless you file jointly. Don't complete anything below the "defendant" section.

For a divorce, you'll have to add a completed Case Data Information Sheet and Certificate of Divorce or Annulment (often called the VS-300).

If you're filing together, you'll also turn in your agreement: a parenting plan and, if you're divorcing, a divorce settlement agreement.

The filing fee varies by county. It's typically about $200 for divorce or $350 to seek child custody if you're not married. You can pay online with credit, debit or prepaid card. If you can't afford it, apply for a waiver.

If any form requires notarization, wait until you're in front of a notary before you sign it.

After you complete paperwork, the court clerk will check to see that you validly signed or notarized it, depending on what each form requires. However, they can't advocate for you, give you legal advice or help you find a lawyer.

Serving the other parent

Skip this step if you file your case jointly.

You may also skip this step if the respondent (sometimes called a defendant) fills out an Entry of Appearance and Waiver.

Otherwise, the petitioner (sometimes called a plaintiff) has to serve the respondent. Service means formal delivery of papers. The petitioner pays about $50 for this. It can be done by the court clerk, who uses U.S. mail; the county sheriff; or a private process server.

Typical results:

  • If the respondent agrees with what's requested in the petition, your case is uncontested. You may not have to go before a judge.
  • If the respondent disagrees, your case is contested. Your court process continues, but you can keep trying to settle.
  • If the respondent doesn't answer, the court may appoint a lawyer (at the petitioner's expense) to try to find them. This person is called a warning order attorney.
  • If the respondent doesn't participate in the case, the court may issue a default judgment without their input.

Anticipating a timeline

If you're divorcing

If you and your ex agree on all the issues involved in your divorce, the divorce may take as little as 60 days to be finalized. You won't need a hearing. The divorce may also be granted quickly if your spouse doesn't respond at all.

If you're arguing, or your case depends on other timelines (e.g., you're divorcing while pregnant), your case could take a year or more.

If you're seeking custody

The process varies by local court. Just as in a divorce, agreement with the other parent usually speeds the process, and arguing slows it down.

Legal help

Kentucky Bar Association Lawyer Referral Services
If you can afford a lawyer's standard rate, seek a referral here.

Legal Aid of the Bluegrass
If you need low-cost legal help (and your case isn't too complicated), this organization may be able to help you. You'll still have to pay court filing fees and a small amount to the lawyer.

Kentucky Court of Justice: Free Legal Help
If you expect you won't have a lawyer, see the state's advice for self-represented people. See especially their list of civil legal aid programs.

The Legal Aid Network of Kentucky (Kentucky Justice Online)
These are legal self-help resources. This organization may be able to give you a referral.

The Ion Center for Violence Prevention
This state-funded nonprofit helps victims of domestic violence.

Preparing for what comes next

If you haven't turned in a parenting plan yet, keep trying to agree on one with the other parent. If you do, you might not need a hearing at all.

If agreement isn't possible, make your own plan to propose to the court.

Either way, you can use the Custody X Change parenting plan template.

The Custody X Change online app suggests what to include while giving you the freedom to write custom provisions.

Turn to Custody X Change for a court-ready plan that supports your child and your custody request.

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