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How to File for Joint Custody

What parents need to do when filing for joint custody of a child.

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 refers to where the child lives, so sometimes parents might share legal custody but not physical custody.

The preferred arrangement by most psychologists and law experts is for parents to share both legal and physical custody of the child, if possible. Filing for joint custody is different in every state; however, the one commonality you can count on is that there’s a lot of paperwork.

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Filing for joint custody

Step 1: File with the court

You first need to file a custody form with the court in your state. You must 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 to file for joint custody, 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 likely also 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.

To file for joint custody, 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. For more information, read our article, How to Make a Parenting Plan.

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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 over the age of 18 can complete this task for you. For the custody hearing to proceed, proof of service by the server must be filed with the Clerk’s office before the court date.

In some states, you can serve paperwork by mail when seeking joint custody. 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.

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Step 3: Attend custody hearings

Once all the paperwork is filed correctly, the court will schedule your custody hearings. You need to make sure you attend them all, and you may choose whether to have legal representation.

During the custody hearings, one of the matters the court will address is your parenting plan. The court will make sure it’s 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 the joint custody filing.

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 parenting plan themselves, rather than forcing the judge to decide. The court also makes decisions about child support during the custody hearings.

It’s 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 about filing for joint custody.

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