Written by Avvo Staff

What to expect when going to court for child custody

Learn what the judge typically looks for when making a ruling in child custody court.
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Going to court for child custody can be a stressful event for a parent or guardian. A judge’s decisions about child custody can have serious long-term impacts on a parent or guardian’s relationship to a child, but anticipating what the judge will expect can help you prepare for custody hearings in advance.

What can I expect from a child custody court?

At a child custody hearing, a judge will consider what custody arrangement to order. The details can differ depending on the situation and the state the court is in. Usually, the judge will set a “custodial parent/guardian” with whom the child will live for most of the time. The judge will then set a “visitation” schedule that describes the non-custodial parent/guardian’s time with the child.

A judge can order a temporary custody arrangement following a custody hearing if there are other issues in the case (such as a divorce). As a part of the final resolution of the larger issue, the judge will issue the final, permanent, custody arrangement. While some child custody cases are resolved quickly, it is common for contested cases to last a year or longer.

How does the judge make their decision?

The judge’s job is to decide what custody arrangement will be in the best interests of the child. The judge can order evaluations and question parties themselves, or parties can submit information on their own.

Direct questions are common during custody hearings. You can expect to be asked about what sort of custody plan you think is best. Be prepared to give clear reasons why you think a particular plan would be best for the child.

Be prepared to answer the judge’s questions during the hearing. The judge will probably ask about who has been caring for the child in the short and long term. Judges are likely to assume that the person who most often takes care of the child is the best suited to acting in the child’s best interests.

The judge will look very closely at whether the child will be safe in the custody of an adult. If the adult has a history of domestic violence, crime, or substance abuse, then the judge may deny them custody. Be prepared for the judge to ask you about previous drug and alcohol issues, crimes, or domestic violence.

In a contested custody case, the judge may appoint a Guardian ad litem (GAL) for the child. The GAL’s job is to act on the child’s behalf. If the child is old enough, the GAL will consider the child’s preference when giving their recommendation to the court.

If the child custody hearing is being held in order to modify a permanent child custody plan, then the person seeking the modification may need to show that circumstances have significantly changed since the original decision. For example, a non-custodial parent might request a modification because a custodial parent plans to move far away.

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