The Process of Child Custody Cases in Virginia
This guide provides a step-by-step outline of what to expect when filing for a child custody or visitation determination in a Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations Courts.
Initial FilingChild custody cases are begun by the filing of initial paperwork commencing the action. This paperwork can be in the form of an initial Petition, or a Motion to Amend or Review Custody/Visitation. Strictly speaking, new actions should be filed by Petition, and Motions to Amend should be used to modify existing orders. However, most courts use Petitions in both instances.
First ReturnAfter the initial filing is finished and served on the parties, all individuals summonsed must attend a first return hearing. At the first return, the Court does several things. First, the parties are ordered to attend and complete a parent education seminar. This seminar discusses co-parenting and the effect of disputes between parent on children. Second, the Court will appoint a guardian ad litem. A guardian ad litem is a licensed attorney who is appointed to represent the best interests of the child. Their job is to make a full investigation and make a report to the Court stating what outcome in the child's best interest and why. Finally, the Court may order home studies to be performed. A home study is performed by the Department of Social Services. They visit each home and collect information regarding the individuals who live there, the condition of the property, the economic stability of the parties, and many other items.
TrialAt the initial return date, the Court picks a date for trial. At the trial, the Court is presented with the report of the guardian ad litem, and the home study reports which were prepared by the Department of Social Services. Each report contains a recommendation for custody. The trial begins by the moving party presenting evidence pertaining to what has changed since the last custody order (not required in initial Petitions), and what the new custody arrangement should be and why. Following their evidence, the responding party is given an opportunity to do the same. Lastly, the child's guardian ad litem is given an opportunity to call their own witnesses, and to offer their own evidence in support of their position. Based on all of this information, the Court makes a determination as to what custody or visitation arrangement is in the child's best interests by applying the evidence to the factors contained in Virginia Code Section 20-124.3. A final order is then prepared and provided to the parties outlining custody and visitation schedules for the children involved.