Court Process: 9 Steps to Child Custody in Maryland

The court process in Maryland divorce and child custody cases varies based on your court, judge and the complexity of your case.

If parents agree on a parenting plan before they open a case or any time during their case, they can settle. Then, the litigation process below jumps to Step 9.

Note that alternative dispute resolution methods follow their own processes.

The following steps are generally part of every case, yet they may occur in a different order. Your case could require additional steps.

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Step 1: Preparation

Do your research and consider your options. Ideally, how would you divide legal custody? What would your access or visitation schedule look like?

It's a good idea to meet with a lawyer to develop a strategy. If you're unable to hire one, at least do a free or low-cost consultation for advice. If you're representing yourself, get familiar with circuit court rules since the court will treat you like an attorney.

Step 2: Open a case

You can open a custody case on its own or as part of an absolute divorce, limited divorce or annulment case. Take your completed forms to the circuit court that supports the county where either parent lives.

Next, service must occur. You can serve copies of the paperwork to the other parent or their attorney via certified mail or ask someone to hand-deliver them.

Step 3: Track assignment

Every case is assigned to a numbered track based on its complexity. Each track has slightly different deadlines and requirements going forward.

Usually, case managers review your paperwork, then suggest a track to the court, but the court may ask you to select a track when you turn in your initial paperwork.

More complicated cases get higher track numbers. For more information on how tracks work in your area, check with your circuit court.

Possible: Emergency hearing

If your child's well-being is at risk, you may need to start emergency proceedings.

The quickest way to get temporary emergency custody is to apply for a protective order on your own behalf (if you're a victim of domestic violence) or on your child's behalf.

Otherwise, you can file a petition to ask for emergency relief. The court will schedule an ex parte hearing, meaning the other parent will not be there to contest. If necessary, the court will issue an emergency order.

Step 4: Scheduling conference

A scheduling conference (also called a scheduling hearing) happens within 60 days of service. Here, the court confirms or changes your case's track, then maps out how the case will proceed.

You'll receive information on parenting plans so you can make one with the other parent (to settle) or on your own (for trial). And the court may order:

Possible: Mediation

In mediation, a neutral third party helps parents reach a compromise. Parents can choose to attend mediation if the court doesn't order it.

If the mediation is successful, parents settle and jump to Step 9 below.

Otherwise, parents proceed through the court process.

Possible: Parenting education

The court may order parents to attend a parenting class, or parents can choose to attend. Classes are six hours long and vary in cost from county to county. Parents receive a certificate of completion to turn in to the court as proof of attendance.

Classes occur in person and online. Parents who attend voluntarily can use either venue, whereas the judge decides for parents ordered to attend.

Step 5: Hearings

The court schedules hearings upon a parent's request or judge's order. At a hearing, parents briefly present arguments and evidence about a specific issue.

You may have a pendente lite hearing, where temporary orders to last the duration of custody proceedings are made. Hearings can also determine whether a case should be put on a new track, whether a child custody evaluation is necessary or whether to assign a parenting coordinator, among other things.

Step 6: Discovery

Discovery is when both sides exchange information before trial. It's an ongoing process throughout the case but really ramps up as trial approaches. The court sets a deadline by which discovery must end depending on the case's track.

When crafting arguments for trial, lawyers often focus on information gleaned during discovery through interrogatories, requests for documents and requests for admissions.

Interrogatories are questions parents and witnesses answer in writing.

Requests for documents are what they sound like; parents use them to ask each other for documents like medical records and emails. When a parent receives a request, they must supply the documents within 30 days.

Requests for admissions ask a party to confirm the validity of documents or accusations against them. For example, one parent can ask the other to confirm that they use illegal drugs. If the parent doesn't respond within 30 days, the court assumes they admit to the accusations.

Discovery may also include depositions. In these in-person interviews conducted under oath, parents and witnesses must answer questions posed by the lawyers.

Step 7: Pre-trial settlement conference

A settlement conference occurs about 60 days before trial. Here, the court determines if the case is ready for trial or if a settlement is possible.

Parents who haven't agreed to settle must file a joint statement prior to this conference.

If parents reach a settlement at the conference, they can state it on the record for the court reporter to type up. The judge can then sign off to make it into the final order, and the case would jump to Step 9.

Step 8: Trial (merits hearing)

Parents who can't settle ultimately end up in a trial (also called a merits hearing).

At trial, both parties present evidence and question witnesses in front of the judge or magistrate. Most trials resolve after a single day, but they can go longer if needed. At the end of the trial, the judge or magistrate announces their decision.

Step 9: Final order

After making a decision at trial, confirming a magistrate's recommendation or approving a settlement, the judge signs the final order (called a final judgment or divorce decree in divorce cases). It includes a parenting plan and an access or visitation schedule, both of which parents must follow.

Orders last until the court approves a modification or the child turns 18 or is emancipated. If you believe there was an error, you have 30 days after entry of the judgment to appeal to a higher court.

Throughout your case

During the child custody process, you may need to create a parenting plan, draft custody schedules, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

The Custody X Change online app enables you to do all of this in one place.

With a parenting plan template, customizable custody calendars, a parenting journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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