Filing for Child Custody in Virginia: 4 Steps

The legal process for custody, parenting time and child support orders officially begins when a parent files a case in Circuit Court or Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (J&DR).

Before opening a case, know your options for deciding custody.

If you have a lawyer, they'll prepare and file your court forms for you. If you're representing yourself, follow the steps below to file a case in either court, keeping in mind that your case may have additional requirements.

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Step 1: Determine your court

If you're handling custody separately from your divorce or aren't married to the other parent, file in the J&DR Court where your children live.

To include custody in your divorce case, file for both issues at once in the local Circuit Court where either parent lives or where you last lived together.

Step 2: Complete your forms

Every court has different requirements for which forms to complete and the number of copies to submit. Ask your court clerk for specifics.

Many forms require notarized signatures, so it's best not to sign any until you're in front of the notary or court clerk.

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

If you can't afford the filing fees, consider your fee waiver options.

If you're filing in J&DR...

Go to your local J&DR Court Services Unit to obtain your forms, including petitions for custody, parenting time and child support. Some counties require parents to make an appointment, while others allow walk-ins. You can download some forms online, including the:

Court Services Unit staff can offer instructions for filling out the forms, but they can't give legal advice.

If you're filing in Circuit Court...

In Circuit Court, parents request orders through documents called complaints. You must submit separate complaints for custody, parenting time and divorce (which includes child support).

Parents or their attorneys must create complaints from scratch according to their court's formatting guidelines, which are often the following: typed, double-spaced with 12-point font and 1-inch margins, printed on standard white paper in black ink, single-sided with page numbers on the bottom.

Some required forms are available online, including the:

If you and the other parent have already agreed to settle, you should also prepare a request to waive service requirements, along with a blank waiver of service for the other parent to complete. (You'll file the other settlement documents later.)

If you're representing yourself in a no-fault divorce, you can use Virginia Legal Aid's Do-It-Yourself Divorce tool to draft your complaints and other paperwork. Many Circuit Courts also offer packets of instructions and sample documents for litigants without attorneys.

Step 3: Submit your forms and pay filing fees

In both courts, when you file your forms, the clerk can notarize your documents and make copies (for a fee).

If you're filing in J&DR...

Return to the Court Services Unit to submit your completed forms and pay the filing fees.

Unless you submit a fee waiver request, you'll pay $25. Petitions and motions filed later require an additional $25 each. You may encounter other fees, depending on your court and the paperwork you're filing.

If you're filing in Circuit Court...

You'll submit your paperwork at your court's Civil Case Intake Unit. Filing fees vary, but you should expect to pay at least $125, unless you submit a fee waiver request.

For a no-fault divorce, you can file one year and a day after your documented separation date. You can file a fault-based divorce (with evidence of the fault) at any time.

Step 4: Serve the other parent and wait for their response

Unless the other parent waives service, you're responsible for officially notifying them about the case by having them served — in other words, by having someone deliver them copies of your filing paperwork and a court summons.

For $12, the court will have the sheriff's office deliver the paperwork and summons. Alternatively, you can hire a private process server to deliver the documents, or you can send the documents by certified mail.

If you're filing in J&DR...

If the defendant doesn't file a response or attend the initial hearing, you can finalize the case without their involvement and get a default judgment.

If the defendant agrees with all your requests via an official response or at the hearing, move on to the settlement process.

If they request different arrangements via an official response or at the hearing, your case is contested. You'll continue through the J&DR litigation process.

If you're filing in Circuit Court...

To participate in the case, the defendant must file a response within 21 days. If they don't, you can finalize the case without their involvement and get a default judgment.

If they file a response agreeing with your complaints and submit a completed waiver of service, then you can move on to the settlement process.

If they file a response that disagrees with your complaint or requests different arrangements, your case is contested. You'll go through the Circuit Court litigation process.

Note for defendants in both courts: Even if you're okay with the plaintiff's requested arrangements, you should file a response so you can participate in the case.

Preparing for what comes next

The next steps after filing your case depend on your circumstances. You may attend mediation, have a hearing to decide temporary orders, or begin gathering information for trial.

No matter what comes next, take advantage of custody technology to be fully prepared.

The Custody X Change app offers personalized parenting calendars for your required parenting time schedule, a parenting plan template to help you create a parenting plan, and much more.

Be prepared for every step of your case with Custody X Change.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting schedules and plans you can file with the court.

Yes, I Want to Make My Virginia Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting schedules and plans you can file with the court.

Yes, I Want to Make My Virginia Plan Now
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Custody X Change is software that creates parenting schedules and plans you can file with the court.

Yes, I Want to Make My Virginia Plan Now

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