How Long Do Custody Cases Take?
With many variables at play, it's difficult to pin down how long custody court takes. But you can get an idea of the timeline to expect based the factors below.
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Factors that influence how long your custody case takes
The court calendar
Court calendars are often congested. You might wait a few weeks for your custody papers to go through, then wait a few more weeks to attend your first hearing.
After that, you may have to attend mediation and other hearings, which might not have slots available right away. Even a trial can spread out over weeks if the judge or courtroom isn't available on consecutive days.
The court's location also affects how long a custody case takes.
Although large cities are densely populated, their courts often process cases relatively quickly since they have more judges and staff available. Smaller areas have fewer staff members and often serve multiple counties, which can mean more time in custody court for parents.
Some states like California require courts to prioritize custody cases over other civil cases in an effort to process them quickly.
Your case type
Divorce and separation cases involve matters besides custody, so they take longer to resolve than standalone custody cases. If you're divorcing, you can expect to spend at least two to six months in court.
Unmarried parents must establish their child's paternity before their custody case can move forward. If they don't agree on paternity and have to open a paternity case, that could add at least a few weeks to their overall time in court.
The relationship between parents
The harder parents fight one another, the longer the custody case will take. Either parent can draw out the case as long as they can afford to. Even after the final order, one dissatisfied parent could appeal the decision or ask for a modification.
Parents who set aside their differences can negotiate a parenting plan to end their case as quickly and civilly as possible.
Any special circumstances
Issues like a history of violence or mental illness could require investigation. The court might order a custody evaluation or assign a guardian ad litem to look into the situation, both of which can take weeks. You might also need to secure an emergency order, which requires additional paperwork and a hearing.
A case cannot begin until the other person named in the custody papers has been given time to respond. Your case may take longer if that person's whereabouts are unknown.
If a parent is out of the area because they're a military member, most courts won't allow the case to proceed until the parent is back.
Courts cannot make custody orders for children in utero, so you will have to wait for the birth if your conflict occurs during pregnancy.
State time limits in custody cases
Many state custody laws address how long custody cases should take.
Minimum time limits
Many states set a minimum time for divorce or separation cases. This is meant to prevent couples from giving up on their relationships in the heat of an argument.
Similarly, Arizona courts specify the parties must wait at least 60 days after service before they can submit a settlement agreement.
In Tennessee, divorcing and separating parents need to have a case on file for at least 90 days before they can get a final order.
Maximum time limits
Keep in mind that these are recommended time limits, not hard deadlines. Cases can go on longer if necessary.
- Illinois recommends custody cases last no longer than 18 months.
- Ohio recommends divorce cases resolve within 18 months.
- Pennsylvania recommends custody cases resolve within 180 days.
- Massachusetts courts expect divorce cases to resolve within 14 months.
- Michigan sets out a time of no longer than 360 days from filing.
Ways to shorten your custody case
Hire a lawyer: Lawyers help you avoid mistakes that can hold back your case or get you charged with contempt. They fill out your custody papers so the forms go through without issue, they help you meet deadlines and they prepare a thorough case. Plus, they know negotiation tactics that could convince the other parent to settle.
Settle your case: Your case could resolve within a matter of weeks if you reach a settlement. Parents can settle on their own, with the help of a lawyer or through an alternative dispute resolution method.
Have a plan: Preparing for court helps you prioritize and makes the custody process less stressful. Start gathering the information you'll need throughout your case before you file custody papers or immediately after you receive notice of the case. Also, come up with a list of things you're willing to compromise on.
Use a custody app: During your case, you'll need to create a parenting plan and draft custody schedules, as well as keep detailed notes. The Custody X Change app enables you to do this and more one place. Staying organized with a custody app helps your case move more smoothly.