How to File For Child Custody
by Unbundled Legal HelpApril 7th, 2021
If you have children and are considering divorce or you are currently in the process of filing for divorce, then you may have concerns about child custody. Namely, how to file for child custody.
Each state has its own process for filing for child custody. However, there are general steps that parents must take regardless of the state they live in. For example, most states require that you file child custody forms with the clerk's office and have them served to the other parent within a specific period of time.
The rules for filing for child custody, procedures, and expectations can be complex and confusing. They also differ from state-to-state. While a clerk can help to explain rules to you, they are not equipped to give legal advice. It is recommended that you consult with your lawyer before filing for child custody. Learn more below about how to file for child custody.
Do I Need to File For Custody of My Child?
It depends. If you are satisfied with the current custody agreement that you have in place with the court, then you will likely have no need to file for child custody. However, if there is a dispute about the current plan or there is no legally recognized plan in place, then you will likely need to file for child custody.
Steps to File For Child Custody
Understanding what will be required to file for child custody can help to alleviate anxiety about the process. If you plan on filing for child custody without the help of a child custody lawyer, it is possible, but not recommended. An attorney can help to ensure that you complete every step correctly and follow all necessary court procedures. Learn more below about the steps to file for child custody.
Research Child Custody Laws in Your State
Though child custody laws are similar throughout the country, there are clear differences in laws and procedures between the states. Before you begin the process of filing for child custody, it is important to gain an understanding of what is required and how your state’s child custody laws apply to your case.
Consider Your Options
Figuring out what form of child custody works best for you, your ex, and your child can be difficult. However, it is important that you are clear on the type of custody that you seek and what concessions are willing to make before you file for custody.
Additionally, if you are able to agree with your co-parent without attending mediation or before going to court, then it may be in your best interest to create a child custody plan together and then have your child custody attorney review it.
Contact the Clerk’s Office
You can obtain forms and information at the clerk’s office, but not legal advice. Most states also offer online options for downloading blank forms. After completing your forms, you must file them with the clerk’s office. At that time, they will typically tell you the date of your hearing.
Collect All Documentation That Can Affect Child Custody
Collect and organize all documentation that supports your claims regarding child custody. Examples of documentation include medical records, visitation logs, phone call logs, education records, etc.
Pay Attention to the Deadlines
When filing your paperwork with the clerk’s office, inquire about specific deadlines that affect your case. Missing a deadline can result in delayed proceedings as well as an unfavorable impression on the court.
What Happens After You File For Custody?
In contested child custody cases, parents must serve the child custody paperwork to the co-parent, attend mediation, and attend a hearing (if necessary). If both parents agree on a parental plan, they may only need to attend a hearing for approval from a judge. Learn more below about what happens after you file for child custody.
Serve The Documents to The Other Parent
Many states require parents to serve a copy of the child custody filing to the other parent within a specific period of time. Some people are comfortable doing this themselves and others prefer a child custody lawyer to complete the forms, file the documents, and have them served.
Mediation can be voluntary or court-ordered. The mediation process helps parents to negotiate, gain interpersonal skills, and ultimately, create a parenting plan together. This is accomplished with the help and guidance of a trained mediator.
Co-parents that are unable to reach an agreement via mediation will likely take their child custody case to court and leave the final decision up to a judge. Parents that come to an agreement during mediation are able to draft and sign a parenting agreement that is in the best interest of their child without the need for a lengthy child custody case.
Attend The Hearing
In extreme cases, child custody battles can last for months. During a child custody hearing, a judge will consider all evidence presented including witness testimony, documentation, recommendations from professionals involved with your case (i.e. mediators, child custody evaluators, etc.). The judge will issue a final ruling based on what they perceive to be in the child’s best interest.
Final rulings are not permanent. If you are dissatisfied with the outcome of your case, you have the option to appeal the ruling or request a child custody modification. However, it is recommended that you consult with your child custody lawyer before doing so.
Can I Get Custody of My Child Without Going to Court?
If you and your co-parent are satisfied with the current legally-established custodial rights, then no, you don’t have to file for child custody. However, if you are in the midst of a child custody battle and/or your child custody agreement has not been approved by a judge, then it is recommended that you follow the correct legal process to obtain child custody.
Child custody agreements without a judge’s approval cannot be legally enforced. Furthermore, agreeing to terms of child custody without signing an approved parenting plan can lead to confusion, frustration, and one or both of the parents being taken advantage of.
How Does Child Custody Work For Unmarried Parents?
Divorced parents automatically incur joint custody of their children in most states. If one or both parents seek a change or to establish custodial and visitation rights, it will require that one of the parents file for child custody.
For unmarried couples, the father must first prove paternity before parental rights are granted. Most states grant the mother full custody of a child born to unmarried parents unless paternity has been legally established.
If unmarried parents have already established custody, filing for child custody will be similar to co-parents going through a divorce or separation.
Do I Need a Child Custody Lawyer?
Technically, no. You can file for child custody without the help of a child custody lawyer. However, it is not typically recommended. Child custody lawyers can help to complete child custody documentation, review forms, ensure that you follow the correct procedures, and represent you throughout your child custody case.
Though hiring a lawyer (at some capacity) is recommended for most parents seeking custody of their child, there are circumstances that especially call for a child custody attorney such as:
Your ex has hired a lawyer
Your child custody case is complicated
Your case crosses state lines
You believe your children are in danger
Your ex is not allowing you to see your children
You have been court-ordered to take classes or attend a treatment program
Ways to Save Money on Legal Fees
The average person understands the benefits of hiring a child custody lawyer, but many can’t afford the high fees associated with traditional lawyers. Most child custody lawyers charge an upfront fee of $3k - $5k and an additional $300 - $500 per hour. The costs can quickly add up and overwhelm you financially.
If you are concerned about paying high legal fees, there are ways to save money. Some of the most effective methods include:
Create a good relationship with your ex: Co-parents that are able to agree on a child custody plan before going to court can save themselves a considerable amount of money in attorney fees and court costs.
Conduct your own research: Understanding your state's child custody laws can help to save you money on consultation services provided by your attorney. It can also help to prevent you from making errors when filing for child custody.
Handle some things on your own: By choosing to handle a few things on your own and hiring an attorney to take care of the rest, you can save thousands of dollars in legal fees. Learn more about hiring an unbundled attorney below.
Contact An Unbundled Lawyer Today
Attorney fees are so high because they typically handle every aspect of your case. However, if you are willing to take care of some tasks on your own like completing forms, serving paperwork, etc., then you can hire an unbundled attorney to specifically take care of the more complex matters (i.e. reviewing documentation, advising you on your rights, and drafting child custody plans).
Fees for unbundled legal help start as low as $500 - $1500. Unbundled legal services are not a good fit for every child custody case. If your case is more complex, our network of small law firms and independent unbundled attorneys offer affordable and highly-equipped full representation.