Filing for Child Custody in Maryland: 4 Steps

You'll need to open a court case in order to request child custody. As you prepare to file, consider the options for resolving your case:

These methods are not exclusive. For example, you may be set on going to trial, but the judge can still require you to attend mediation (the most common alternative to court). If it's successful, you'll settle; if it's unsuccessful, you'll continue litigating.

If you hire an attorney or mediator, they will file your case for you. If you're on your own, follow the steps below to file for custody.

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Step 1: Determine your case type

Begin by deciding what type of case you want to open:

  • Absolute divorces are for spouses who want to terminate their marriages. You must meet at least one ground for absolute divorce. Parents who agree on all matters before the case begins have a mutual consent divorce.
  • Limited divorces (separations) are for spouses who aren't ready for absolute divorce but want to begin resolving issues like custody. You must meet at least one ground for limited divorce.
  • Annulments invalidate marriages as if they never happened. You must meet at least one ground for annulment to qualify.
  • Standalone custody cases are for those who want physical or legal custody of a child. A parent or a third party can begin this case.

Step 2: Complete your forms

At the top of each form listed below, enter the county where you'll open the case — either your county or the other parent's. The plaintiff is the person opening the case, while the defendant is the other parent.

Once you complete the forms, sign them in front of a notary and make copies for your records.

All case types require a Domestic Case Information Report.

If you're requesting alimony or child support and the parents' combined income is $15,000 or less, complete a Financial Statement (Child Support Guidelines). If the combined income is greater than $15,000, complete a Financial Statement (General).

If you live in a county that allows electronic filing (details in Step 3), complete a Notice Regarding Restricted Information.

If you cannot afford filing fees, fill out a Request for Waiver of Prepaid Costs to delay costs until the end of the case. To completely cancel fees, fill out a Request for Final Waiver of Open Costs, which a judge will have to approve.

See other forms you'll need for your type of case below. Ask the court clerk if you'll need to turn in anything additional. For help, contact a legal aid office or an attorney.

Absolute and limited divorce cases

To end your marriage, fill out a Complaint for Absolute Divorce, and attach your case information report. If you don't have a settlement ready and want to officially assign fault for the breakup, you must live separately from your spouse for at least 12 months before filing this paperwork.

For a limited divorce, complete a Complaint for Limited Divorce instead, and attach your case information report.

Keep in mind that you must meet a residency requirement for any divorce. If the ground for your divorce occurred in Maryland, you need to currently live in the state. If the ground you're filing under occurred outside the state, one parent needs to have lived in Maryland for at least the past six months.

Annulment cases

If you have grounds for an annulment, fill out a Complaint for Annulment, which you can get from the court clerk. Attach your case information report.

Standalone custody cases

After establishing the child's paternity, complete a Complaint for Custody. Attach your case information report.

The child involved in the case must currently live in Maryland or have lived in the Maryland for the last six months.

Step 3: Open your case

You can either file in person at the circuit court in the county you listed on your forms or file electronically (not available for Baltimore City, Montgomery or Prince George's counties).

To open your case, you need to pay a filing fee of $165. Your case is not open until the fee is paid or a waiver request is approved.

You'll receive two copies of your complaint and two writs of summons in the mail within a couple of days (or in more than a week if you requested a fee waiver).

Step 4: Serve the other parent

Service is the delivery of court documents to the other parent.

Within 60 days of receiving complaint copies and writs from the court, you must serve the other parent with one of each. If you don't do this within 60 days, you'll need to request a new writ of summons.

There are three acceptable methods of service:

  • Personal service: Someone who is over 18 and not part of the case (like a friend, family member or private process server) hand delivers the paperwork to the other parent at home or work.
  • Certified mail: You mail the paperwork via certified mail with restricted delivery. Request a return receipt for the defendant to sign if they accept service.
  • Sheriff delivery: A sheriff or deputy sheriff hand delivers the paperwork to the defendant. Check with the court clerk for the associated fee.

Whoever serves the other parent will need to fill out an Affidavit of Service form. You'll file this form, a return receipt (if applicable) and the other set of documents the court sent you. If a sheriff or deputy served, they'll return the affidavit for you, and you'll just hand in the documents sent by the court.

If service attempts fail multiple times, you can ask the court to let you serve by alternate means, such as regular mail or publication in a newspaper. For a judge to approve this, you need to show that the other parent is evading service or that all other options have been exhausted.

The defendant's response

Depending on where the other parent lives, they have 30, 60 or 90 days to respond to the complaint. The first deadline applies if they live in Maryland, the second if they live outside of the state and the third if they live in another country.

They respond via an Answer to Complaint, which allows them to briefly confirm or deny claims you made, saving full arguments for court. (The court has instructions on how to fill out the answer.) If you requested alimony or child support, they'll also need to attach their own financial statement (details in Step 2).

To request reliefs of their own (e.g., custody), the defendant fills out a counter-complaint:

The defendant must also complete a Domestic Case Information Report.

They sign the forms in front of a notary and file them with the court. Then they serve you or your attorney with copies of the paperwork, following the process in Step 4.

If the defendant does not respond on time, you can submit a Request for Order of Default asking the court to decide the case without their participation. A hearing is usually required.

Preparing for what comes next

The next step in the court process depends on your county. Most parents go to mediation, unless they reach settlement first.

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

The Custody X Change online app offers access calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more. You can use it 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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