How Does Family Court Work?

Family court handles cases involving family members or family relationships, such as paternity and child custody. Family cases sometimes involve agencies like Child Protective Services.

Although they are family cases, divorce and legal separation are handled outside of family court in some places due to the property and finance issues that need to be addressed.

What happens in family court?

Family court works differently depending on the case type, but cases generally involve the following.

Many family cases reach a settlement. They can exit the court process as soon as they have it approved by a judge.

Filing a petition. A case begins when someone (called the petitioner or a similar title) fills out and files a petition with the court asking for something (e.g., child custody).

Serving the other party. Service is when copies of paperwork are delivered to the other person named in the petition (called the respondent or something similar). After receiving a copy of the petition along with a summons, the respondent has time to respond. If they don't respond, the petitioner can ask the court for a default judgment — a judgment without the respondent's input.

Trying mediation. It's common for courts to require the parties (the petitioner and respondent) to try mediation early in the court process. If they reach an agreement, the mediator can write up the terms. The parties file the agreement with the court along with a request to make it into a court order.

Going to a first court appearance. If mediation is not required or is unsuccessful, the court gives the parties a date to appear before the judge. At this hearing, the judge ensures the respondent has been served, asks if the parties need time to find a lawyer, and figures out the case timeline.

Attending a temporary orders hearing. Since it may take a while to get a final court order, the parties can request temporary orders to cover the matters in dispute during their case. At the hearing, a judge decides the orders or can approve a temporary agreement between the parties.

Participating in discovery. Discovery is ongoing throughout the case. The parties exchange documents and information in preparation for trial or settlement. The process may include out-of-court questioning of witnesses (called depositions), investigations and more.

Having a pretrial conference. Here, the parties prepare for trial, setting the witnesses and time they'll need and more. They can also try to settle.

Going to trial. The parties appear before a judge, who decides the final order. Each party (along with their lawyers if they have them) presents arguments and evidence, questions their witnesses and gets questioned themself.

Getting a final order. A final order details the judge's ruling or the agreement reached by the parties. You'll receive a copy from the court.

What can help in family court?

Preparation is very important. The following can provide great insight into how family court works:

  • Study the laws and court procedures for your case type in your area (e.g., child custody laws and procedures)
  • Gather strong evidence to support your case, like the best evidence for custody
  • Sit in on family court hearings to get a sense of what they're like
  • Find resources, like a lawyer or legal aid organization
  • Speak with friends and family members who have had cases in your family court

Trying mediation before you start a case can also help. If you reach an agreement, the court process will be much shorter and less expensive.

A lawyer is an invaluable asset in family court. They will fill out and file all of your paperwork, attend court appearances with you, help you prepare for court and more.

To save on legal fees, look for lawyers who charge rates based on income or charge a flat rate based on case type. Having limited representation, meaning the lawyer only handles certain parts of your case, can also help you save.

If you're low-income, you might qualify for free representation through a legal aid service.

Many litigants in family court represent themselves. Courts often have resources available online and in person for self-represented individuals. Ask your court about the help it offers.

Is family court open to the public?

Yes, family courtrooms are open to the public. The judge or another presiding officer can close the court to the public for privacy or other reasons, but this doesn't happen often.

Court records resulting from family cases are public, though some personal details may be removed.

Is family court civil court?

Although family cases are civil cases, family court is separate from civil court. In some jurisdictions, they are in the same courthouse, but the cases are tried by different judges.

Family court works differently than civil court. In civil court, individuals and businesses are suing for money and damages. In family court, the desired verdict may not be monetary (e.g., custody).

Another key difference is that family court decisions come from the bench — in other words, from the judge. Civil courts often involve juries.

Civil court rulings are always in favor of one of the parties (if the case is not dismissed). In family court, it's possible for the ruling to serve the interest of someone not named as a party, like a child in a custody case.

How do I find my family court jurisdiction?

Family court jurisdiction varies by location. Family courts typically have jurisdiction over:

The court location that processes your case depends on which county you live in. Your county may have its own family court, or you may have to go to a nearby county. There may not be a "family court" within your jurisdiction. Instead, there might be a "common pleas court" or "superior court" with a family division within.

If your case involves a child, you'll file in the county where they live. Also, the case can only be heard in the state in which the child has resided for the past six months. (See the Uniform Child Custody Act.)

Find your local court or county's website to find out which court will hear your case. You can also ask a lawyer in your town or go to the legal aid office nearest you.

Going to family court for custody

The process of deciding custody and visitation requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple parenting time schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

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

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker, parent-to-parent messaging and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to custody and visitation.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

Explore examples of common schedules

Explore common schedules

Join the 60,000+ other parents who have used our co-parenting tools

Organize your evidence

Track your expenses, journal what happens, and record actual time. Print organized, professional documents.

Co-parent civilly

Our parent-to-parent messaging system, which detects hostile language, lets you collaborate without the drama.

Get an accurate child support order

Child support is based on parenting time or overnights in most jurisdictions. Calculate time instead of estimating.

Succeed by negotiating

Explore options together with visual calendars and detailed parenting plans. Present alternatives and reach agreement.

Never forget an exchange or activity

Get push notifications and email reminders, sync with other calendar apps and share with the other parent.

Save up to $50,000 by avoiding court

Write your parenting agreement without lawyers. Our templates walk you through each step.

Prepare for Family Court



Long distance schedules

Third party schedules


Summer break

Parenting provisions


How to make a schedule

Factors to consider

Parenting plans:

Making a parenting plan

Changing your plan

Interstate, long distance

Temporary plans

Guides by location:

Parenting plans

Scheduling guidelines

Child support calculators

Age guidelines:

Birth to 18 months

18 months to 3 years

3 to 5 years

5 to 13 years

13 to 18 years


Joint physical custody

Sole physical custody

Joint legal custody

Sole legal custody

Product features:

Software overview

Printable calendars

Parenting plan templates

Journal what happens

Expense sharing

Parenting time tracking

Calculate time & overnights

Ways to use:

Succeed by negotiating

Prepare for mediation

Get ready for court