Filing for Child Custody in Tennessee: 5 Steps

Filing (opening) a case is the first step toward getting a custody order. From there, you can either settle or let the judge decide final orders at trial.

Custody is automatically part of divorce and legal separation cases involving minor children. Parents who aren't married open a standalone custody case after establishing the child's paternity.

Either parent can file a case. The one who does is called the plaintiff, and the other parent is known as the defendant.

If you're working with a legal professional, they will open your case for you. Otherwise, the steps below can guide you through the process.

Note that requirements and procedures may vary by case and county.

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Step 1: Determine your court

Either you or the other parent must have lived in Tennessee for at least six months before you can begin a case. Your court depends on where you both live and your type of case.

Divorce and separation

You'll file in the county where your spouse lives or where you last lived together. File in your county if your spouse is in jail or not a resident of Tennessee.

You can go through circuit or chancery court. Procedurally, they're similar, but in some counties they differ by the number of judges available, which could impact the length of your case. In Shelby County, the Divorce Referee's Office assigns your case to a court.

Custody only

Unmarried parents petition for custody through the juvenile court in their child's county of residence. Juvenile court may waive the six-month Tennessee residency requirement if there's an emergency.

Step 2: Complete your paperwork

If the other parent is a danger to you or your child, use the Petition for Order of Protection to request a protection order (commonly known as a restraining order) or an emergency custody hearing.

Complete a Request to Postpone Filing Fees if you cannot afford the costs to open a case.

Then, complete the paperwork specific to your type of case. Any paperwork that isn't online should be available at your court clerk's office.

Divorce and separation

If you want to end your marriage, you'll need to complete all of the following forms. If you want to remain married but live separately from your spouse, fill out the same forms but replace the complaint with a Petition for Legal Separation.

  • Complaint for Divorce: Lists the ground for divorce (page 226) and specifies the arrangements you're seeking for custody, child support, property, etc.
  • Summons: Lists the defendant's contact information so they may receive written notice of the case. This is not required if you're settling.
  • Spouses' Personal Information form: Provides both spouses' social security numbers and personal info. Place in an unsealed envelope with both spouses' names and the case number written on it. (The court clerk will give you the case number.)
  • Health Insurance Notice: Notifies the defendant of any upcoming changes to insurance as a result of the divorce. (If you don't have insurance, check the box indicating so, and only fill out the Certificate of Service section.)
  • Permanent Parenting Plan: Details your agreed-upon or proposed parenting arrangement. Use the state's parenting plan form, and you can add extra detail by attaching a Custody X Change parenting plan.
  • Divorce Certificate: Answers questions required by Tennessee law. Complete every question except those that cannot be answered until the case is closed, which the court clerk will fill out.

You can complete an Agreed Divorce Packet if you're divorcing, agree with the other parent on everything and meet the criteria on page 1.

Other parents can use the personal information and health insurance forms within the packet, but they must obtain a different Complaint.

Parents who agree on settlement terms but don't qualify to use the Agreed Divorce packet must draft their own Marital Dissolution Agreement (called a Marital Separation Agreement if you're separating).

Depending on your court, you may also have to fill out a Civil Case Cover Sheet.

Custody only

To begin a custody action, fill out a Petition for Custody to specify what you're asking the court to grant.

You may have to include other forms. For example, Shelby County requires an affidavit confirming the court has jurisdiction. Some courts require you to attach proof of the child's parentage to the petition.

Attach a parenting plan if you want to show the court your ideal arrangement or if you've reached an agreement with the other parent. You can use Tennessee's Permanent Parenting Plan or a customized format, such as the Custody X Change parenting plan template.

Step 3: Finalize your forms

Sign your forms in front of a notary. Make three copies of the complaint or petition, two copies of the parenting plan and one copy of everything else.

Step 4: Hand in your paperwork

Take your forms to the proper court and pay the filing fees. You'll pay $250 to $400 for divorce, at least $100 for separation and about $150 for a custody-only case.

You'll get back a copy of the complaint or petition (with the case number stamped on it) and a summons. You could ask to have both forwarded to the sheriff's office for service (Step 5).


Filing for divorce is a bit special. If you're filing in Shelby County, your forms go to the Divorce Referee's Office. Elsewhere, take them to the clerk in the circuit or chancery court. If you're in Nashville or Davidson County, you may file your forms electronically.

If you have an agreed divorce, only hand in your complaint, personal information sheet, summons (if applicable), Civil Case Cover Sheet (if applicable) and request to postpone filing fees (also if applicable). You'll hand in your agreement later on before your settlement hearing.

If you don't have an agreed divorce, you'll turn in all your original forms (minus the Health Insurance Notice) and two additional copies of the complaint.

Step 5: Service

Through service, parents notify one another of court actions and exchange case information.

If you're married, you must send a copy of the Health Insurance Notice via certified mail to the defendant's last known address at least 30 days before the insurance coverage ends. (If you filed a Marital Dissolution Agreement, this is typically the only form you have to serve.)

All other forms must be served by a sheriff's office or process server. There isn't a deadline to serve these forms, but your case cannot proceed until the defendant receives them.

You can request service from the sheriff's office when you file your case. You'll pay a $42 fee, then the clerk will forward your forms to the sheriff's office.

If you prefer to hire a private process server, provide them with the summons and complaint or petition given to you by the clerk, your proposed parenting plan (if you filed one) and an Affidavit of Service. You'll file the affidavit after the server fills it out.

Responding to a complaint (defendants only)

After being served, you have 30 days to file a response at the court listed on the complaint or petition.

If you don't respond, the plaintiff can ask the court to enter a default judgment, which could give you no say in the case.

To respond, you can write an answer with or without a counterclaim.

In an answer, you'll admit to or deny all of the plaintiff's claims. Print the case information as it appears at the top of the complaint and title the document "Answer." Respond briefly paragraph by paragraph. For example, if you disagree with the first paragraph, write: "1. I deny the allegations in paragraph one."

Write a counterclaim if you have allegations or claims to make. This can be written on the same document as the answer. Title this section "Counterclaims," and respond paragraph by paragraph. For example, when responding to the plaintiff's claims for custody in the fourth paragraph, write: "4. I believe I am entitled to equal time with the children."

Sign your documents in front of a notary, and make two copies. One set of copies is for you. File the originals and the other copies with the court. You'll serve the plaintiff with the copies the clerk gives back to you. (See Step 5 for information on serving.)

Preparing for what comes next

The next step in the court process depends on your county and your case. You may attend a docket call, mediation or jump right into discovery.

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

The Custody X Change online app offers custom custody 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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