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Child Custody | Family | Guardianship

What Are the Legal Rights of Siblings in Child Custody Cases?

8 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

While siblings may not be given legal rights in custody cases, the court will take their relationship into consideration when making any decisions. This means a sibling can’t demand custody or control the outcome of a case, but they will be seen as an important part of the child’s life, and their opinion may be considered.

Siblings are often important to a child’s emotional well-being, especially if the parents aren’t able to provide the necessary support or guidance. It’s natural for siblings to be protective of each other and view themselves as a unit that should stay together at all costs.

In most cases, courts will try to keep siblings together if they feel it’s in the child’s best interest. This may include awarding joint custody to both parents, giving one parent primary physical custody and the other parent shared legal custody, or even allowing a sibling to serve as an alternative caregiver if needed.

If you have questions about your legal rights in a child custody case, consult a family law attorney. They can provide advice and assistance in ensuring the court understands the importance of siblings in the case.

Connect with an Unbundled lawyer for more information on child custody and sibling rights.

What Siblings Can and Can’t Do During Custody Proceedings?

During the custody proceedings, siblings can express their desires and preferences regarding who they want to live with. They can also inform the court about any issues that are important to them, such as sibling visitation. Siblings generally cannot directly participate in custody proceedings or make any legal decisions on behalf of themselves or other family members.

However, siblings are encouraged to speak up during court hearings and provide input on the custody arrangement so the court can make an informed decision. Siblings may also be called as witnesses if their testimony could help the court determine what custody arrangement is in the best interests of the children.

Can Siblings Refuse Custody Decisions?

Siblings cannot legally refuse a court-ordered custody arrangement or visitation rights. The court’s decision is binding, even if one of the siblings does not agree with it. If a sibling refuses to comply with the custody order, they may be at risk of being held in contempt of court or facing other legal consequences.

If siblings are unhappy with the current custody arrangement, they can ask their parents to negotiate changes that both parties can agree on. If necessary, the parents can also return to court and request a modification of the order. Siblings cannot petition the court themselves to modify or terminate a custody arrangement.

Can Siblings File for Custody?

In most child custody cases, the primary focus is on the rights and responsibilities of the parents. However, in certain situations, siblings may also be able to file for custody. The ability of siblings to seek custody typically depends on state laws and the specific circumstances surrounding the case. Sibling custody cases are generally considered more challenging than cases involving parents, as courts are often reluctant to remove a child from the care of their biological or legal parents.

In cases where there is evidence of child abuse or neglect, an adult sibling might have a stronger case for filing for custody of their younger sibling. Courts may be more inclined to grant custody to the adult sibling if they can provide a safe, stable, and nurturing environment for the younger sibling, particularly if the parents are deemed unfit or incapable of providing proper care.

In What Circumstances Can Siblings File for Custody of Their Younger Siblings?

In certain situations, siblings may have the ability to file for custody of their brothers or sisters. This typically occurs when the siblings are adults, and they can demonstrate that obtaining custody is in the best interests of the child. Obtaining custody of a sibling may involve seeking both legal custody, which grants decision-making authority, and physical custody, where the sibling lives with and takes care of the child in their own custody.

There are a few specific circumstances where a court may consider granting custody to a sibling, including:

Parental Incapacity or Unfitness

If a court finds that the child’s parents are unable to provide a suitable environment or care for the child, a sibling may be able to step in and request custody. This can include situations where parents are dealing with drug addiction, mental health issues, or criminal behavior.

The Child’s Preference

Depending on the child’s age and maturity, a court may consider their preference when determining custody. If the child expresses a desire to live with a sibling instead of a parent, this may be considered by the court.

Existing Relationship

If a sibling has already been serving in a caregiving role for the child, the court may be more likely to grant custody. This could be the case if the sibling has provided financial support, shelter, and emotional care for the child, mainly if the parents are absent or unable to fulfill their responsibilities.

Sibling Group Preservation

If the court determines that it is in the best interests of a group of siblings to remain together, they may grant custody to one sibling. This is particularly common if the siblings have a strong bond. It can benefit the child’s emotional well-being to remain with their siblings rather than separate siblings who rely on one another for support and companionship.

Can Siblings Request a Modification of an Existing Custody Order?

In certain situations, siblings may want to request a modification of an existing custody order to accommodate their needs or preferences better. While siblings themselves do not typically have the legal standing to request a modification directly, they can express their concerns to their parents or a guardian ad litem. In turn, these parties can petition the court for a modification on the siblings’ behalf.

To request a modification of an existing custody order, the petitioner must demonstrate that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the initial order was issued. Some examples of substantial changes include relocation, a change in the child’s or parents’ schedules, parental drug abuse impacting the child’s well-being, or a situation where the current custody arrangement has negatively impacted the siblings’ relationship.

Does Visitation between Siblings Have to be Part of a Child Custody Order?

Visitation between siblings is not automatically included in child custody orders. In most situations, siblings can visit each other without obtaining a court order. Generally, visitation between siblings is only limited when it is determined to be harmful to the child’s welfare or when either parent objects. As long as the parents are in agreement, siblings can typically decide on their own when and how to visit each other.

In some cases, parents may voluntarily agree on the importance of sibling visitation and include it in their parenting plan. If the parents cannot agree on sibling visitation, one of them can request that the court address the issue during custody proceedings. The requesting parent will need to present evidence supporting the need for sibling visitation and demonstrate how it serves the children’s best interests.

Can Siblings Become Legal Guardians?

Siblings may become legal guardians in some cases. For example, if the parents are incapacitated or have passed away, a sibling can request guardianship from the court. The petitioner must demonstrate that they are capable of providing care and support for their sibling, and they must also provide evidence that the guardianship is in the best interests of the child. The court may also consider whether granting sibling guardianship would preserve the familial relationship, especially if there are several siblings involved. 

When an older sibling seeks to gain custody of a younger one, they must complete the necessary legal forms and follow the proper procedure as required by the court. The petitioner must be at least 18 years old and have no criminal history or disqualifying factors that could prevent them from serving as a legal guardian.

Once the court grants guardianship to a sibling, they will have the authority to make decisions on behalf of their brother or sister, just as a parent would. This could include decisions related to education, healthcare, and general welfare. Guardians are typically responsible for caring for their siblings until adulthood or guardianship is revoked.


Child custody and visitation between siblings can be complicated matters. It is essential to understand the laws in your state and consider all relevant factors related to the child’s welfare, preferences, and relationship with their siblings.

If you’re facing a child custody case involving siblings, you might be concerned about the costs of legal representation. Unbundled Legal Help can provide a solution. We can connect you with attorneys in our network who offer unbundled services or limited-scope representation. Instead of charging a hefty retainer fee and managing your entire case, these lawyers can assist with specific aspects of your case based on your needs and budget.

The attorneys in our network offer more budget-friendly options than traditional family lawyers. However, it’s important to recognize that their services are not free, with fees typically ranging from $500 to $1,500 depending on the extent of assistance needed. Unbundled services may also only be appropriate for some cases, and some complicated situations require a lawyer to manage the entire process.

Contact an unbundled lawyer in your area to learn more about your options.

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