Filing for Custody: Full Custody, Visitation, Etc.

Filing for custody is a must if you want legally enforceable parenting arrangements.

When you petition for child custody, you're asking the court to make custody arrangements for you or incorporate the terms of an agreement into a custody order. Getting an order allows the court to enforce it should a parent fail to follow its terms.

Filing a petition for custody

Filing for custody is another way of saying you're starting a custody case in court. Technically, you don't "file" the paperwork yourself; the court clerk does after you hand it in. From then on, all paperwork you hand in becomes part of your court file, which has its own unique number.

Usually, you'll file a petition for custody in the state where your child has resided for the past six months. (See the Uniform Child Custody Act for more information.)

If you have a lawyer, they will handle everything for you. The following steps explain how to file custody papers on your own.

Filing for custody in your state or location may follow slightly different steps.

Step 1: Determine your case type

These are the most common cases that involve filing for child custody:

  • Child custody determines who is in charge of the child's care, including providing their primary home and making decisions on their behalf.
  • Divorce ends a marriage and determines arrangements for child custody, spousal and child support, and any shared assets and property.
  • Legal separation establishes that spouses will live separate lives without ending their marriage and determines the same terms as a divorce.

Unmarried parents may have to establish the child's paternity before the court will accept a petition for custody. Sometimes, child custody is decided as part of a paternity case.

If you're divorcing, you may have to separate from your spouse for a certain amount of time before filing for divorce. In some locations, parents can petition for custody before filing for divorce.

Step 2: Gather and fill out your forms

Custody and divorce forms are available online and at courthouses, legal aid offices and law offices. When filling in forms by hand, the standard is to use blue or black ink.

You'll also need to provide supplementary information like:

  • Your child's birth certificate
  • A proposed parenting plan
  • Any court orders related to your child
  • Financial statements
  • Your marriage certificate

Your court may offer a joint petition that allows you to file for custody with the other parent if you've reached an agreement.

Parenting plans are custody agreements. Divorcing and separating parents include their plan as part of a divorce settlement agreement. You can use the Custody X Change parenting plan template. Your court may also have agreement templates.

If your court requires notarization, sign your forms in front of a notary. Print multiple copies of your paperwork. Keep a set of copies for your records, give copies to the court and serve a set to the other parent.

Step 3: Turn in your forms

Take your forms to the court that handles your case type. Some states have more than one court that hears family cases. For example, if you file in New York, the Supreme Court handles divorce and the Family Court handles custody-only cases.

You'll typically turn in your forms at the court location closest to your child's residence. If you're divorcing, your state may require you to file in the court closest to your spouse's residence.

Electronic filing, completed by submitting your forms to the court online, is an option in some courts.

Expect to pay a filing fee, generally up to several hundred dollars. If you cannot afford to pay the fee, ask for a fee-waiver request form.

Step 4: Serve the other parent

After filing for custody, the other parent must receive notice of the case through a process called service. Your case won't officially begin until it's done. If you filed a joint petition, you can skip service.

The service package should include a summons, copies of the paperwork you filed with the court and a response form for the other parent to fill out.

Either the parent who petitioned for custody hand delivers the documents or an adult who is not involved in the case does. When hand delivery isn't possible, the court may allow service to happen via certified mail, email or publication in a newspaper.

After serving the forms, the server must provide the court with proof of service. This usually comes in the form of an Affidavit of Service detailing how, when and where service happened.

Filing for full custody

Filing for full custody (also known as filing for sole custody) means you want sole physical custody and sole legal custody of your child.

You'll tick off a box on your petition to indicate you want full custody or fill out a separate petition for full custody if your court has one.

You shouldn't file for full custody unless it's clearly in the best interest of your child. The general belief is that if both parents are fit, both should have regular involvement in the child's life.

Follow the steps for filing a petition for custody above.

How to file for visitation rights

Visitation is the right to have regular visits with the child.

Custody and visitation are often handled together, but it's possible to file a petition for visitation separately. This is commonly done by grandparents.

Your court may have a petition for visitation or a general custody petition on which you'll tick off a box to show you're asking for visitation.

Follow the steps for filing a petition in family court above.

How to file a petition for custody without a lawyer

Filing for custody without a lawyer is an alternative many parents gravitate towards to save money.

Here are some tips for filing for custody without a lawyer:

  • Do your own research specific to your state. Many states publish online guides for self-represented parents.
  • Go to your local legal aid office for help.
  • Take your time and re-read your paperwork once it's filled out.

Incorrectly filling out paperwork or filing in the wrong court can delay your case. Not following the court's rules for service is also a common way that many parents without a lawyer mess up.

If you don't think you can handle filing for custody on your own, consider hiring a lawyer just to file for you. You could still represent yourself throughout the rest of the case.

Preparing for what comes next

Once you file all your paperwork, your case will be slotted for review.

If you filed a full agreement, a judge will sign your final orders to close your case, as long as they consider it to be in your child's best interest.

If you haven't reached agreement with the other parent, you'll prepare for court. Take advantage of technology to be ready.

The Custody X Change online app offers custom custody calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, an expense tracker and more.

You can use the app in many ways: put together proposals for the other parent, prepare settlement paperwork or organize evidence.

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

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