| Read Time: 5 minutes | Child Custody
How To File For Child Custody In California

Parents are often overwhelmed by the process of filing for child custody. On top of the emotional burden of divorce or separation, you’re also responsible for navigating a complex legal process to secure your parental rights. When it comes to custody proceedings, even small misunderstandings have serious consequences.

Missed deadlines or incorrect documentation can drag out the process and add to the stress on your family. This blog post will walk through the basic steps involved in the California child custody process. We’ll explain some of the terms and documents parents should be aware of before going to court. 

Keep in mind: Filing for custody isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. Because each family is unique, the actual steps involved depend on your individual circumstances. Ultimately, the best person to answer your specific questions about how to file for custody is a child custody lawyer in California

Open a Family Court Case

To begin filing for custody, you generally need to open a case in California family court, such as a divorce or a parentage (paternity) action. 

Divorce, Separation, and Parentage Actions

Most parents seeking child custody orders from a court are doing so as part of a divorce, separation, or parentage action. To end a marriage or domestic partnership in California, you need to fill out a petition for divorce or separation or a parentage petition.

Keep in mind: To file for divorce or separation in California, either you or your spouse must have lived in the state for at least six months and in the county where you plan to file for at least three months. 

California’s family court typically issues a decision about child custody as part of a divorce judgment. However, if you’re in the middle of divorce or separation proceedings and want a judge to enter a temporary child custody order, you can do that with a Request for Order form.

A Request for Order gets you a hearing with a judge who can make a provisional decision about custody arrangements while your divorce is pending. Either spouse can file a Request for Order at any time during a divorce or other family law case. In the future, if you want to change your custody arrangements, you can use the same Request for Order form to do so.

Filing for Custody without a Family Court Case

If you aren’t filing for divorce, separation, or annulment and you have already established parentage, you can open a child custody case with a Petition for Custody and Support. This is most commonly used where unmarried parents are separating and parentage has already been established (e.g., by filing a voluntary declaration of parentage).

Tell the Court What Custody Arrangement You Want

Once you’ve initiated a family court case, use the form to explain your preferred custody and child support arrangement. There are several different combinations of custody arrangements you can request: 

  • Joint legal custody—both parents share equal power to make major decisions in the child’s life, including education, medical care, and religious upbringing;
  • Sole legal custody—one parent has exclusive decision-making power regarding the child’s life, health, and well-being;
  • Joint physical custody—a child spends substantial time living with both parents; and
  • Sole physical custody—a child lives primarily with one parent, and the other parent has visitation rights that allow them to spend time with the child according to a designated schedule.

Whatever you choose, be prepared to explain why it’s in the best interest of your child. Attach any documents that offer support for your requests. If you’re not sure what to include or if you have questions about how to file for sole custody in California, it’s wise to get in touch with a family lawyer. 

File Your Forms with the Court

When your forms are complete, be sure to sign and date them. Make two copies of the petition and any attachments. Then, take the original and the two copies to the county courthouse to be filed. You’ll also have to pay a filing fee unless you’re eligible for a fee waiver. The court clerk will stamp all your forms and keep the originals. The copies go back to you. 

Serve Papers on the Other Parent 

Next, have someone serve a copy of the petition to the other parent. This process is called “serving papers.” Legally, you can’t serve the papers yourself. Instead, you need to find another person over 18 to do it for you. 

The person you’ve chosen will deliver your spouse copies of any documents you’ve completed, as well as any relevant attachments. If your spouse has a lawyer for this case, then your server should deliver these documents to them instead. 

When they’ve finished, your server must complete a document confirming that the service is complete. This is called the Proof of Service form. In it, they’ll record when, where, and how they delivered the documents. Make a copy of this form, and file the original with the court where you filed your petition.

Gather Evidence

Prepare to show the court evidence that the custody arrangement you want is in your child’s best interest. Evidence can include medical records, school reports, financial statements, and witness testimony. If you don’t want your co-parent to have any legal custody or visitation with your child, you should gather evidence that supports your claim that they’re unfit to parent, like documentation of an ex’s past domestic violence or substance abuse problems. In these situations, it’s best to consult with an attorney. An experienced family lawyer can help you gather the evidence you need to make your case for the custody arrangement you want. 

Participate in Mediation

California family law requires parents in custody cases to participate in mediation before they meet with a judge. This is an opportunity for you and your spouse to come up with a parenting plan before you get to court. A trained mental health professional will meet with you both and help you talk through your options. The goal is to reach an agreement on:

  • How you’ll make important decisions about your child’s health, education, and well-being; 
  • Where your child will live; and
  • When and how you each spend time with your child.

If your ex has been violent and you’re worried about your safety, tell the mediator immediately. The court can arrange for you to have meetings on separate days. 

Obtaining a Custody Order

If you and your ex do agree on custody and a parenting plan, a judge may be able to review and approve it without needing you to come to court.

If mediation doesn’t resolve anything, then a judge will make a decision about custody following a hearing. In the meantime, gather as much evidence as you can that supports your side of the case. This can include financial statements, medical records, school reports, or other documents related to your child’s well-being. 

Contact a Legal Advocate for Guidance on How to File for Child Custody in California

Family disputes rarely have easy answers. Custody arrangements that satisfy one family might not work for yours. If you’re concerned about an upcoming hearing or have questions about how to file for full custody in California, consult with an attorney as soon as you can.

The skilled family advocates at Pakpour Banks LLP understand how the custody process can affect parents and children. As a boutique law firm, we offer a level of personalized support that big firms can’t. Our attorneys have won awards for our dedication to public service and client-centered approach to advocacy.

Contact our office online or by phone to speak to a legal representative about how we can help you and your family.  

Author Photo

Brian enters the family law profession with a refreshing approach to these proceedings: heal families; don’t destroy them. In some cases, this means the family is going to look different than it did before. In other cases, this means a new family is created where there was none before. Either way, individuals should leave family court knowing their voices were heard, and with healthy attitudes about themselves and those they love.

Read More Legal Blogs By Brian Pakpour

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