Virginia Child Custody Hearings & Trials: What to Expect
Hearings and trials are court sessions where parents present information to a judge, who makes decisions about the case. They typically result in court orders, which could be for big issues (like custody, parenting time or child support) or smaller issues (like a mental health evaluation or mediation session).
Hearings are held to address temporary issues, finalize settlements and enforce or modify final orders.
When parents can't reach a complete settlement, a judge decides the disputes and issues final orders in a trial.
Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.
Which hearings you have depends on your case, your court, and if you're divorcing or not married to the other parent. Keep in mind that procedures vary.
Circuit Courts and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts (J&DRs) typically schedule hearings in large time blocks, often with 10 or more cases per block. Arrive when the block begins, and wait your turn — you'll likely sit through hearings for other cases, and other people will sit through yours. (Cases with lawyers go first.)
In some Circuit Courts, a commissioner in chancery may oversee your hearings. This is essentially a court referee, whose decisions must be finalized by a judge.
Initial hearings (J&DR only)
Automatically scheduled when a parent files a case in J&DR, the initial hearing (also called a status hearing) is for determining the status of the case. The judge can approve a settlement agreement or, when parents can't agree, plan the case's next steps.
In smaller courts, the hearing happens about three months into the case. In bigger courts (e.g., Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun), you might wait five months or more. Unless you've already reached agreement with the other parent, most courts will refer you to an orientation about mediation in the interim.
If parents are ready to settle by the hearing, they can send a lawyer in their place to submit the agreement. If neither parent has a lawyer, the parent who filed the case (the plaintiff) must attend to submit the agreement.
If parents aren't ready to settle by the hearing, both must attend. The judge will consider any motions, like requests for evaluations, and may appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the children and investigate the case.
Protective order hearings
In cases with domestic violence, parents can request protective orders for themselves or their children in J&DR Court, even if they have a divorce case in Circuit Court.
Protective orders last up to two years. In emergencies, you can ask the court to issue one immediately, before the other parent gets notified (called an ex parte request). The state has a protective orders guide for victims with more information about the types of orders, how to request them and what kind of hearings they may require.
Motions ask the court to make decisions and take action in a case. You can file motions for temporary custody, a substance abuse evaluation, a guardian ad litem and much more.
Courts hold motion hearings throughout the week on specific days. When you file a motion, your hearing is scheduled for the next available motions day — typically weeks or months out. For emergency issues, ask the court clerk about requesting an expedited hearing.
Ore tenus hearings (Circuit Court only)
If you're settling in Circuit Court, you may have an ore tenus hearing to finalize your agreement.
If you filed an uncontested case, this hearing is optional in most counties. It's required if your case was originally contested.
Courts schedule ore tenus hearings for the next available motions day or an uncontested docket day, which is just for settlements. You'll wait several weeks or even a few months for your hearing.
The plaintiff and their corroborating witness attend the hearing and give testimony to confirm the basic facts of the case. If you have a lawyer, they'll ask the required questions. If you're representing yourself, you must ask the witness the questions and read your prepared testimony aloud.
Modification and enforcement (show-cause) hearings
In some counties and cities, you're required to file motions for modification and enforcement in J&DR, even if your final orders were issued in Circuit Court.
When parents can't agree on modifying their orders, the court decides in a hearing on the next available date.
When a parent requests enforcement, courts often hold a show-cause hearing. The parent who asks for enforcement provides evidence of violations, and the other parent can refute the claims or explain why they violated the orders (i.e., show cause). If the judge decides violations occurred, they might assign penalties or issue new orders to address the issues causing the violations.
Preparing for trial can take a year or more, while the trial itself might take hours or days.
While waiting for trial, you'll complete discovery — the legal process of sharing information with the other parent.
During a trial, parents argue their case by giving opening and closing statements, presenting exhibits and questioning witnesses. They can challenge each other's exhibits and question each other's witnesses (called cross-examination).
If you have a lawyer, they'll do all the above for you, and you'll simply answer questions as a witness.
The judge may interview the children in their office (called chambers) with only a court reporter and, possibly, parents' lawyers present. If your case has a guardian ad litem, they'll participate on the children's behalf.
After parents present their arguments, the judge may immediately announce decisions or adjourn to further consider the evidence. The break may last days or weeks if the case is complex.
The judge chooses one of the lawyers to write up final orders reflecting the rulings. If neither parent has a lawyer, the guardian ad litem or the court writes the final orders.
In some Circuit Courts (e.g., Fairfax) you'll likely have two trials about a month (or more) apart: the first for custody and parenting time and the second for divorce and child support.
Preparing evidence for hearings and trials
Hearings and trials can have far-reaching effects on you and your children. Preparing evidence is crucial.
The evidence you present must be relevant to the issues at hand. For example, in a motion hearing for temporary custody, you can only present evidence related to parenting, not to divorce.
For trial and for some hearings, you need evidence that you support your children's best interests. You may need to prove claims from your court paperwork, disprove the other parent's claims and challenge findings from an investigation or evaluation.
Common evidence includes photos, emails, text messages, social media posts, family calendars and official records. Witness testimony is also a common type of evidence in trials and some hearings. Witnesses testify in person or submit sworn written testimony, depending on their availability and the court's procedures.
Lay witnesses (non-experts) testify to what they have personally observed. These witnesses often include the parents themselves, relatives, child care providers, the family's therapists and doctors, etc. In Circuit Court, the parent who opens the case must also provide a corroborating witness to verify the facts of the case.
For trials, parents can hire expert witnesses, such as child development specialists, to offer professional opinions. Some parents hire private custody investigators or evaluators.
If you have a lawyer, they'll help you prepare evidence. Provide them with everything they request, and always be honest with them so they can best represent you.
If you're representing yourself, familiarize yourself with the factors courts consider in custody decisions and your court's rules.
- Ask the court clerk about your court's procedures.
- Dress professionally.
- Arrive early to find parking, go through security and locate the courtroom.
- Only bring your children if they're being interviewed that day.
- Friends and family can attend, but don't bring new romantic partners.
- Always refer to the judge or commissioner in chancery as "Your Honor."
- Show respect to everyone, and never interrupt.
- Ask for clarification if you don't understand something.
- When speaking, take your time, but don't ramble or go off topic.
- Answer questions directly, and only provide explanations when prompted.
- Don't lie or provide misleading information.
Using technology for your hearings and trials
Hearings and trials require serious organization.
The Custody X Change online app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place. With customizable visitation 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 children.
Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.