Virginia Custody Process in J&DR Court

Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (J&DR) issues custody orders for unmarried parents and for married parents handling custody separately from their divorce case.

If you're in either of these situations, follow the steps below. At any point in the process, you can agree with the other parent to settle your case.

To handle custody as part of your divorce, follow the Circuit Court custody process instead.

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Before you file

You will use the J&DR Court where your children live. Familiarize yourself with the court's procedures, as well as the statewide factors in custody decisions.

Ideally, you should hire a lawyer to help you come up with a legal strategy, complete paperwork, negotiate with the other parent and, if necessary, argue your case in court. If you can't afford a lawyer, you may be eligible for free or low-cost legal assistance.

Married parents must live in separate homes to file for custody in J&DR, but the court doesn't care how long they've lived apart.

Unmarried parents should decide at this point how they'll confirm paternity.

Step 1: Filing your case

Either parent can open a case with the J&DR Court Service Unit.

The parent who files the case is referred to as the plaintiff or moving party, and the other parent as the defendant or respondent. Both are litigants.

If you and the other parent can't agree on custody and parenting time for the duration of the case, file a motion for temporary custody. You can also include a request for a protective order, if necessary to prevent family abuse.

Formally notify the other parent that you've opened a case by serving them copies of your initial paperwork. If they make their own requests in a response to the court (or at the initial hearing, explained below), your case is considered contested.

Possible: Hearing for temporary orders

If either parent files a motion for temporary custody orders, the court schedules a motion hearing for both parents to present evidence and argue for their preferred arrangement. Parents must follow temporary orders until they're replaced by final orders.

Step 2: Mediation orientation and mediation

Most counties require parents in contested custody cases to attend an orientation about mediation (though some courts don't require it until after Step 3). You might have a group orientation or meet with just the other parent and a court mediator.

If after the orientation you both agree to try free mediation, schedule a session for as soon as possible — ideally, a date prior to your initial hearing.

Step 3: Initial hearing

When you file your case, the court schedules an initial hearing, usually three to four months out. In busier courts (Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, etc.), you may wait six or more months for the hearing.

If you have a settlement ready, you'll finalize it here. The judge will review your agreement and sign off, as long as it meets the children's best interests.

In contested cases, this is where the judge takes any actions necessary for the case to proceed, such as appointing a guardian ad litem or considering requests for evaluations.

Step 4: Discovery (continues throughout)

Typically lasting months, discovery is a legal process in which parents exchange personal information and the evidence they're preparing for trial. Discovery continues until the final weeks before trial.

Parents must share financial documents, all evidence and a list of witnesses.

You may have your attorney depose the other parent's witnesses (question them under oath for the court record), and the other parent's attorney can depose your witnesses. Parents who don't have an attorney can conduct depositions themselves.

Failure to comply with your court's discovery requirements or the other parent's requests can delay your case and be considered contempt of court.

Step 5: Parent education seminar

All parents in contested custody cases must complete an education seminar before the end of their case. Take it early on so you don't run into problems.

The seminar covers co-parenting, dispute resolution and how separation affects children. Take the four-hour class in person or online from an approved provider, and submit proof of completion to the court. You don't have to attend with the other parent.

Possible: Investigation or evaluation

Not all cases require an investigation or evaluation.

If a guardian ad litem (GAL) is appointed to represent the children, they'll conduct an investigation of the parents' homes and relationships with the children. When child abuse is alleged or suspected, Child Protective Services may investigate instead of or in addition to a GAL.

When parents challenge each other's ability to meet the children's best interests, the judge may order an evaluation, in which a child custody or mental health expert assesses the case and makes recommendations to the court.

Step 6: Trial

Any issues the parents still can't agree on are decided by the judge in a trial. Both parents (or their lawyers) present evidence and question witnesses to support their requests.

The judge considers parents' arguments along with the results of investigations or evaluations. They may announce their decisions immediately, or they may first call a recess (break) for hours, days or even weeks.

After announcing their rulings, the judge asks one of the lawyers or the guardian ad litem to draft the final orders. If neither parent has an attorney and there's no GAL, the court writes the orders.


Parents can appeal a J&DR trial decision or settlement in Circuit Court. Any appeal filed within 10 days of the final order's issue will be heard. The appealing parent doesn't need to allege misconduct or a legal error.

These appeals are heard de novo, or starting anew, which means your case starts from scratch with a Circuit Court judge. The J&DR orders remain in effect throughout the appeal process.

Keep in mind that Circuit Court judges rarely overturn J&DR rulings. Consult an attorney if you're considering or facing an appeal.

Throughout the case

During the custody process, you may need to create a parenting time schedule, write a parenting plan, keep a log of interactions with the other parent, and more.

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

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

Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

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