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How to File for Joint Custody

Filing for joint custody is different in every state; however, the one commonality you can count on is this: there's a lot of paperwork.

Joint Legal Custody

Joint legal custody means that both parents have the legal authority to make significant decisions on behalf of their child. Just because parents have joint legal custody, does not necessarily mean they have to file for joint physical custody as well. Physical custody is where the child lives, so parents may share legal custody but not share physical custody.

The preferred arrangement by most psychologists and law experts is for parents to share both legal and physical custody, if possible.

Filing for joint custody is different in every state; however, the one commonality you can count on is this: there’s a lot of paperwork. file paperwork with your local clerk of court

Filing for Joint Custody

Step 1: File with the court

You need to file a custody form with the court in your state. You have to submit the forms with the court in the county where your child has primary residence. It’s a good idea to check with the Clerk of Courts to be sure that you have all the paperwork required, as there are multiple forms. You can review and obtain most of the paperwork online, but it’s still worth a call to the Clerk to have them walk you through the process. You’ll also likely need the Clerk of Courts to give you a case ID number.

Once all the paperwork is complete, you will sign the forms, have them notarized, witnessed, and return them to the court. There are various fees to file the paperwork; costs can be around a few hundred dollars or more depending on your court.

You will also be required to provide a copy of your child's birth certificate and other documentation. Courts will often request a parenting plan, which details parenting time, rights, and responsibilities of each parent. For more information, read How to Make a Parenting Plan.

serve the other parent with court documentation

Step 2: Serve the Other Parent

Serving the other parent with legal paperwork is one of the most common actions that parents overlook. The parent filing the custody paperwork is responsible to "serve," or adequately notify the other parent that there is a pending child custody case.

You cannot serve the child custody papers yourself. A Sheriff, process server, or a friend or family member who is over the age of 18 can complete this task for you. Proof of service by the server must be filed with the Clerk’s office before the court date for the custody hearing to proceed.

In some states, you can serve paperwork by mail. In this case, all papers should be sent by certified mail with a return receipt requested, so you have proof that the other parent received the paperwork.

attend all court hearings

Step 3: Attend Custody Hearings

Once all the paperwork is filed correctly, the court will schedule your custody hearings. Make sure you attend all hearings. You may or may not choose to have legal representation during your custody hearings.



During the custody hearings, one of the matters the court will address is your parenting plan. The court will make sure it is comprehensive and agreeable to both parents. Ideally, you and your co-parent will have determined everything in the parenting plan ahead of filing the paperwork, but that might not be the case. Until the parents have a mutually-agreed-upon parenting plan, the courts won’t make a final determination on custody.



If you and your child’s other parent are having difficulties negotiating items in your parenting agreement, working with an arbitrator or mediator is a good option. It's usually better for everyone involved if the parents agree on the plan themselves, rather than forcing the judge to make the decision.


The court also makes decisions about child support during the custody hearings.  



It is important for you to understand how custody works because it affects your responsibilities as a parent and the well-being of your children. Contact an experienced family law attorney or the local bar association in your state to learn more.

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