Where to Apply For Child Custody?
by Unbundled Legal Help
Applying for child custody can be a confusing, stressful, and drawn-out process. Parents interested in applying for custody and/or modifying their current child custody agreement are often unsure of how to begin the process and what to expect.
In general, child custody applications are filed at the family court clerk’s office. It’s typically in your best interest to contact the clerk’s office before going. They will often tell you where you can get the documents and where you need to file the forms. Learn more about applying for child custody below.
Where do I go to File for Custody of My Child?
Each state has its process to file for child custody. Some states have forms readily available online. Other states require applicants to visit the court clerk’s office to pick up the forms.
Applications are usually filed at the court in the same county/city where the parent and child live or where the child is physically located. Inter-state child custody cases can be more complex. While the clerk can explain the process to you, they do not offer legal guidance. If your case presents unique challenges, it is recommended that you consult with a child custody lawyer.
How do I Apply for Custody of My Child?
The exact steps to apply for child custody depend on the specifics of your case and the state where you live. To learn more about what to expect, contact a family lawyer in your area. While there are differences in the process, there are a few general steps recommended for anyone applying for child custody. Learn more about each below.
Speak with a Child Custody Attorney
Every child custody case is different. Determining the type of child custody you need, filing for child custody, serving the documents, and preparing for the hearing without legal assistance can be overwhelming. A child custody lawyer can help you to navigate the family court system, follow the correct procedures, and file mistake-free paperwork.
Visit the Clerk’s Office
The clerk’s office helps applicants with the process of filing for child custody. However, they cannot help you decide what type of custody to file for. It is in your best interest to have a clear understanding of the type of custody you desire before filing any paperwork with the court clerk’s office.
Changing your mind after the paperwork has been filed and a court date is set can be difficult, costly, and prolong your child custody case.
Serve the Documents to Your Co-Parent
After you file for custody of your child, the next step is to “serve” your co-parent with copies of the child custody paperwork. The serving process can differ state-to-state. It is important to be aware of how much time you are allowed to serve the documents to the other parent. Not adhering to the deadline could delay your case.
Some states require that you use a third-party serving processor, other states allow for other methods. In most cases, your child custody attorney can serve the documents as well.
Get Prepared for a Hearing
Disputed child custody cases require adequate preparation. Failing to prepare for your child custody case can leave you more vulnerable to unfavorable outcomes including the possibility of not having custody of your child.
Those filing for custody should understand their state’s child custody laws, know the outcome they desire, collect documentation, and begin working on their negotiation strategy.
Family courts often require parents in disputed cases to attend mediation before an actual child custody hearing is held. However, if you and your ex are not likely to agree in mediation and/or you have different thoughts about what’s best for your child, you should begin preparing for a hearing as soon as possible.
What Happens After I File for Child Custody?
What happens after you file for child custody will depend on the particulars of your case, the state you live in, and whether or not you have hired a child custody lawyer in your area.
In general, it is recommended that you learn more about the custody laws in your state and how they apply to you. You should consult with your family attorney, attend mediation (voluntarily or by mandate), and attend your hearing (when necessary). Learn more about each step below.
Learn Child Custody Laws in Your State
Understanding your state’s child custody laws and how they apply to your case is essential. Those who are not well-versed in child custody law will likely be at a disadvantage during mediation as well as at their hearing.
Some are comfortable taking the time to learn specifics of the law and others would rather entrust a child custody lawyer to keep them abreast of their rights and the law. Regardless of how you become informed, it is in your best interest to do so.
Consult with Your Child Custody Attorney
If you haven’t already consulted with a child custody lawyer, consider that now may be a good time to do so. If you have already filed for custody, an attorney can help you to develop a parenting plan that’s in the best interest of your child negotiate with your partner, and represent you in mediation and/or court, etc.
It’s normal for a family court judge to order parents to attend mediation if they are in the midst of a disputed child custody case. However, some parents decide to attend mediation before being ordered to do so.
Mediation allows parents to non-confrontationally negotiate and develop a parenting plan that is in their child’s best interest. The sessions are facilitated by a third-party professional mediator. Having an attorney come with you is optional. If you choose not to bring your attorney, it is recommended you consult with them before the mediation process begins and after a parenting plan has been drafted (but before it’s signed).
Go to Court
If you and your ex can successfully negotiate and sign a parenting plan, then you may only need to appear in court for the judge’s approval. However, if you are not able to agree on and draft a parenting plan, then you can expect a court process that can potentially last for months.
This allows time for preparation, interviews, professional opinions, observations, testimony, presentation of evidence, and deliberation. In every child custody case, the judge will make their ruling based on what’s in the child’s best interest. Thus, the parent that presents the most compelling case typically has the upper hand.
Who Should File for Custody First?
Regardless of who files for custody first, the court will make its final ruling based on the best interest of the child. There is generally no legal advantage to filing for custody first. The court will review all evidence, testimony, recommendations, and desires impartially.
However, those who file for child custody first have the advantage of setting the pace of the case. Furthermore, you will get to speak first in your child custody hearing if the case goes to trial. Though these are not “legal” advantages, there can still be some benefits from applying for custody first.
Do I Need to go to Court to Apply for Child Custody?
In short, yes. If you would like your child custody arrangement to be legally recognized and enforceable it is in your best interest to go through the appropriate legal channels. Informal child custody agreements can be made out-of-court. But if there are disagreements or a parent isn’t holding up their side of the deal, a family court cannot enforce them.
However, you can attend mediation or other types of informal negotiations to draft a parenting plan before you go to court. Speak with your child custody attorney to learn more about the benefits of informal negotiations.
How Can a Child Custody Lawyer Help Me?
You have the right to file for child custody without help from an attorney. However, this is typically not recommended. Family lawyers help parents going through child custody cases in a variety of ways. Some of the most common ways a child custody lawyer can help you include:
- Overall legal support: An attorney can help you to navigate the complexities of the legal system, gain an understanding of family law, follow the correct procedures, prepare you for court, etc.
- Strengthen Your Claims: Child custody lawyers help parents seeking custody to strengthen their claims and effectively present them in court.
- Weaken Your Ex’s Claims: If your ex has made false claims against you, an attorney can help you to defend yourself as well as highlight deficiencies in your ex’s claims.
- Draft Parenting Plan: An attorney can help you to develop negotiation strategies during mediation and advise you on parenting plan drafts before they are signed.
- Jurisdictional Boundaries: If parents in a custody battle have moved to different states, it can often require a proven child custody lawyer to understand jurisdictional boundaries, different state laws, and the correct procedure.
How Much Will a Child Custody Lawyer Cost?
The words “lawyer” and “affordable” are usually not mentioned in the same sentence. This is usually for a good reason; because they are expensive. You can expect to pay a traditional child custody lawyer $3k - $5k just to start on your case, and an additional $300 - $500 per hour on top of that.
Needless to say, many people can’t afford these fees. However, there are ways to save money on legal fees which can allow you to hire a lawyer for much lower costs.
Tips to Reduce Legal Fees
One of the most impactful methods for saving money on child custody legal fees is to develop a relationship with your ex. This does not mean that you have to be best friends. It means that you can be able to negotiate with your co-parent without the need to involve the courts until it’s time to get your plan reviewed.
Additionally, child custody lawyers often cost so much because they handle every aspect of your case. However, you can save on legal costs by taking care of some things yourself and hiring an unbundled attorney to take care of the rest. Learn more about unbundled legal services below.
Save Money with an Unbundled Lawyer Today
The choice between hiring a child custody lawyer and not hiring one could mean the difference between gaining custody of your child or losing custody. Unbundled legal help allows parents to take care of certain aspects of their case such as serving documentation, filling out forms, drafting parental agreements, etc. while using an unbundled attorney to handle the more complex matters (i.e. document review, negotiations, etc.).
Fees for unbundled legal services start as low as $500 - $1500. This can save you thousands of dollars in upfront legal fees that you would otherwise have to pay. If your case is not a good fit for unbundled legal services, our network of small law firms and independent unbundled attorneys also offer affordable rates for full representation.