Child Custody Trials in Minnesota: What To Expect

Many Minnesota lawyers say at least 90 percent of their clients reach agreement on custody.

If you agree with the other parent on a parenting plan — including a parenting time schedule — you don't need a custody trial. (You might still go to trial for other reasons, like dividing property.)

But if you don't settle your disagreement about how to parent, you'll proceed to trial to get a custody decision. Trial procedures and timing may vary by case, county and judge.

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Receiving a trial date

To help you resolve your disagreements, the court requires you to try an alternative dispute resolution method like mediation. (You won't have to do this if your situation involves domestic abuse.)

When you try an alternative dispute resolution strategy and still can't resolve your issues, you and the other parent go to trial.

The judge uses your pretrial hearing to schedule a trial date. Then you receive an order to go to trial along with details about submitting paperwork and evidence.

Understand that your trial date may change. Especially in smaller Minnesota counties where court resources are limited, the court could postpone your case and prioritize a more urgent one. If the court puts you on a waiting list, be ready to go when they call you.

Preparing for trial

If you represent yourself, you are held to the same standard as a lawyer, so prepare thoroughly. Observe other trials with your judge. Consult the Minnesota District Court General Rules of Practice. And review your district's special rules if your trial is in any of the following counties:

  • Ramsey (Second Judicial District)
  • Hennepin (Fourth Judicial District)
  • Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne, Washington or Wright (Tenth Judicial District)

Keep parenting actively while you await trial, even if you've moved out of the child's home. This shows the judge that you're committed to your child.

Make plans to dress professionally and arrive on time to your trial, even if it takes place via video conference.

Before trial, you inform the court — and the other parent — of the evidence you intend to bring. Sharing lists of witnesses, exhibits and supporting documents allows both parents and the court to prepare.


Documents and physical objects you bring to court as evidence are called exhibits.

Make sure your proposed parenting plan and parenting time schedule include the required information and look professional. You can use the Custody X Change parenting plan template and parenting calendar tool to make this easy.

Other exhibits you can bring include:

The court tells you when and how to share copies of all your documents with the judge, court clerks and witnesses. The judge may prefer them in an exhibit book — a grouping with a table of contents. Making a joint exhibit book with the other parent can help the trial move more smoothly and quickly.


Choose witnesses who can confirm key facts about you, the other parent or your child. This is more important than vaguely endorsing your character.

Sometimes, it's appropriate to hire an expert witness with specialized knowledge (e.g., a physician explaining a rare medical diagnosis).

Ask your witnesses in advance for their participation. They have the right to decline. To demand a witness' appearance and give the court the ability to enforce it, you must subpoena them. Your courthouse should have forms for this procedure. Generally, you can expect to pay a small fee to the court and find another adult to serve the subpoena.

Warn your witness what you'll ask them so they can prepare. You and your lawyer can help them rehearse, but you can't require them to answer any particular way.

Evidentiary hearings

Many cases have an an evidentiary hearing, especially those with a prior order, abuse allegations, imminent military deployment or a request for third-party custody. Parents often think of the evidentiary hearing as their trial because the two events are so similar.

The main difference is that the judge generally uses the evidentiary hearing to decide specific issues, such as whether a request is valid or certain evidence is allowable. But sometimes they decide the whole case then.

If you don't have an evidentiary hearing, or if issues remain undecided after an evidentiary hearing, the judge calls a final hearing. Technically, the final hearing is the trial.

If you're asked to appear at an evidentiary hearing, prepare for it as seriously as you would for trial.

What happens in court

Custody trials in Minnesota are decided by a judge alone, not a jury. Some paternity cases, however, are decided by juries.

The judge may allow both parents to make a brief opening statement. Don't think of it as a dramatic performance — the judge is more impressed by your reasonableness and organization than by your emotional delivery.

Then the petitioner (the parent who opened the case) presents their argument. They present evidence and call witnesses, and both parents take turns questioning the witnesses.

Next, the respondent (the other parent) gets a turn to present evidence and call witnesses, whom the petitioner can also question.

At the end, both parents may be able to make a closing statement.

If the child has a guardian ad litem (GAL), this person participates much like the parents, giving evidence and questioning witnesses. The GAL typically presents last.

Child interviews

By law, the judge should consider the child's thoughts if the child has the "ability, age, and maturity" to express them. The judge gets to decide whether the child meets those parameters.

Even though judges can interview children, they seldom do. Many don't wish to pull the child into the parents' argument. And in most cases, other professionals — usually a custody evaluator and sometimes a GAL — have already interviewed the child by the time of trial.

If a judge does interview the child, they do so during trial, typically with the parents' lawyers present but not the parents themselves. This happens in the judge's chambers or online rather than in the courtroom. The judge does not directly ask the child who should have custody but probes for details like whom the child feels most comfortable with.

Reaching a decision

The trial may wrap up within a few hours if there are minimal issues to be resolved. A more complex case could be in the courtroom for several days.

After the trial concludes, the judge issues a final order that you and the other parent have to follow. You may wait up to 90 days for the judge to write their decision. It will contain an explanation of their reasoning.

To reach a decision, the judge considers the 12 factors in Minnesota custody cases. These include how custody changes might affect the child's family relationships, whether the parents are likely to resolve future disagreements about the child, and how each parent has cared for the child in the past.

Generally, the court wants to give each parent as much parenting time as possible. But it weighs any illnesses or addictions that may affect parenting, any domestic abuse, and each parent's willingness to support the child's relationship with the other parent.

It's possible to change the court order in the future, especially if necessary to meet the child's needs. Changing an order is much easier when you and the other parent agree. Otherwise, you will have to repeat much of the custody court process.

Your privacy

Family law hearings are public in Minnesota, including trials. Anyone can search for a scheduled trial, and anyone can enter the courtroom unless the judge decides otherwise.

Many court documents are public, too. People may have to go to the courthouse to view them. If a document contains private data (e.g., bank account numbers), members of the public can only see a cover sheet describing what the document contains.

Remember that your child, like anyone else, may someday be able to access these documents.

Using technology for your trial

Custody trials require serious organization.

You may need to propose parenting time schedules, suggest a parenting plan, show messages from the other parent and more.

The Custody X Change online app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place. With customizable parenting time calendars, a parenting plan template, printable parent-to-parent messaging and beyond, it helps you prepare for every step of your case.

Take advantage of custody technology to get what's best for your child.

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