Beginning the process As with most court proceedings, a suit for child custody begins with a petition. The petition may be filed by any number of people, including parent(s), stepparent(s), grandparent(s), or siblings, although there may be additional requirements for some relatives versus others. In general, the petition should be filed in the county in which the child resides.
The petition must state it is regarding the interests of the child, and include other specifics (including the child’s name and birth date, the name(s) of any parent(s) or guardian(s) involved, etc.). Once the petition is filed, any other guardians, parents, or individuals who have or may have an interest in custody of the child must be formally notified that the suit is happening.
Once a correct petition is filed, the court will schedule a hearing. The hearing will generally be conducted in the same way as any other civil trial, including the use of a jury. There are occasional differences (for example, the parties can ask that no spectators be allowed in the courtroom). If there are allegations of child abuse, the child may be allowed to testify outside of the courtroom, either through a pre-recorded statement or video broadcast from another location (these rules also apply if a medical condition would prevent the child from appearing in court).
Once the trial is completed, the court will enter a final order determining who has possession of the child and when. The court may also order such things as family counseling. The parties may enter into an agreement themselves as to possession and visitation of the child. If no such agreement exists, state law provides for a general agreement that sets out when the child will stay with which parent and the like. This agreement applies to children over the age of three; for younger children, the court looks at multiple factors to determine with whom the child should live and when.
Factors in determining possession
The overarching determination in any child custody case is what will be in the best interests of the child. State law presumes that at least one of the parents should have custody over any non-parent. State law also emphasizes keeping siblings together whenever possible.
There are many factors that are issue specific. For example, there may be one set of factors courts use to decide whether to allow a parent to move the child to another location. In general, however, the courts have set out some general rules for determining custody:
There are additional rules and factors that may come into play based on the specific circumstances in each case. For that reason, it is important to seek advice from an experienced attorney prior to beginning any suit for custody so that you can receive guidance that is specific to your situation.