20 Frequently Asked Questions About Child Custody

The right child custody information can help you prepare for your case and ultimately win child custody.  Here, you'll find parents' top 20 questions about child custody to help you approach a child custody hearing with confidence.


What Is Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody?

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Legal custody refers to the ability to make decisions on behalf of your child, whereas physical custody refers to where the child lives. Technically, a parent can have legal custody without having physical custody. Consider all of the child custody options available to you, including shared parenting and bird’s nest custody, before deciding on what type of custody you want to pursue.


Does an Unmarried Mother Need to File for Custody?

Some states expect unmarried mothers to file for custody, while other states presume that unmarried mothers automatically have custody of their children. Read up on the child custody laws in your state to find out whether you need to file for custody officially.


How Do Child Custody Laws Vary in Each State?

Child custody laws differ from state to state. Therefore, any parent who wishes to file for child custody or defend his or her claim to child custody will need to become familiar with the child custody laws in the state where the child resides.


How Is Custody Determined?

A lot of factors go into a court’s decision about which parent should be awarded child custody. Generally, those factors include the parents’ wishes and ability to provide for the child, in addition to the current child custody arrangement and the child’s existing relationship with each parent.


What Other Factors Are Considered?

You should also know that the courts will consider whether each parent will be supportive of the child’s ongoing relationship with the other parent, in addition to the child’s age, any special needs, medical needs, and other pertinent factors.


What Are the Best Interests of the Child?

The courts want every decision they make to reflect what is best for the child, and each state defines its standards for determining what the “best” or most ideal situation is for all involved.

While these standards do vary from state to state, family courts generally presume that it is in a child's best interest to maintain relationships with both parents to whatever extent possible, particularly if the child has enjoyed a close relationship with both parents.


Do You Need a Child Custody Lawyer?

In most cases, it is advisable to at least participate in a free consultation with a lawyer before making this decision. If cost is a concern, contact Legal Aid in your state or participate in a free legal clinic offered through a nearby law school.


Should You File for Child Custody Pro Se?

Filing for child custody pro se means representing yourself in court. Even if you’ve been through this process before, it is generally advisable to seek a qualified family law attorney, especially if you know that your ex-spouse or ex-partner has sought legal representation.

Another option is to have a lawyer assist you with the necessary paperwork and help you prepare for representing yourself in court.


When Should You Seek a Temporary Child Custody Order?

Many states require temporary child custody orders during the period between a couple’s separation and divorce. There are also other circumstances in which a temporary child custody order is advisable, such as a parent’s illness, hospitalization, or military service. In such cases, parents should set up temporary guardianship with the child’s other parent or with a trusted friend or relative.


What are Private Custody Agreements?

If you’re able to work out a reasonable child custody agreement without the courts, you should still work with a lawyer to have the paperwork drawn up, signed, and filed with the courts.


What is Mediation vs. Arbitration?

The main distinction is that an agreement reached through mediation is non-binding in court, whereas an agreement reached through arbitration can be either binding or non-binding. Both processes are generally preferable to an adversarial child custody battle.


When Should You Resolve Your Dispute Through Mediation?

Mediation has been helpful for many couples who were initially engaged in an adversarial, difficult child custody battle. For most families, talking with a qualified mediator is worth the time and effort, and often allows a reasonable compromise to be reached more quickly.


How Are International Child Custody Cases Handled?

Any parent going through an international child custody battle should strongly consider working with an attorney who has international child custody experience. They can assist you in leveraging the Uniform Child Abduction Prevention Act (UCAPA) to ensure that your child is not vulnerable to parental abduction and communicates through appropriate international legal channels on your behalf.


When Will the Courts Modify a Child Custody Order?

Some states lay out a specific set of circumstances for acceptable child custody modifications in their child custody laws. Some of the general reasons why courts might consider a request to modify child custody include relocation, safety, the death of a parent, and other legitimate causes for reconfiguring an existing child custody order.


How Do You Prepare for Your Custody Hearing?

It is best if you work with your child custody lawyer to devise a plan for each court appearance. The more you can prepare upfront, the more confident you will appear in court. Remember, too, that little things like how you dress for court and your use of proper courtroom etiquette will influence the judge’s impression of you as a parent.


How Do You Prepare for a Child Custody Evaluation?

Remember that your relationship with your child is the most important thing you want the evaluator to notice. Don’t let yourself get so nervous that your obvious love and concern for your child don’t shine through. Also, keep in mind that appearances do matter. Make sure that your home is clean and orderly, and try your best to be yourself while answering the evaluator’s questions.


How Do You File a Parenting Plan With the Courts?

Some states require parenting plans, while others do not. Read the child custody laws for your state to determine whether your state requires parents to file a written parenting plan in family court. You should also consider writing a parenting plan, even if it’s not required, because it will force you and your ex to make thoughtful decisions about how you plan to collaborate on raising your children together.


How Does Child Custody for Special Needs Children Differ?

Yes, the courts will consider a child’s special needs, particularly where medical or developmental issues make it difficult for parents to share custody. The courts will still want to see that the parents are willing to cooperate and ensure that the child can enjoy an ongoing relationship with both parents.


Are Judges Biased Against Fathers?

The courts are not permitted to discriminate against fathers in court. There are still many cases, though, where the mother is given primary custody because up until the divorce, she served as the primary caregiver.

Fathers who wish to win child custody should prepare to present themselves as the better parent without coming across to the judge as bashing the other parent or attempting to limit the child’s relationship with her.


What Is the Impact of Allegations of Domestic Violence?

The courts are reluctant to award child custody to any parent who has perpetrated domestic violence on the child or other members of the family. Therefore, they will carefully investigate any allegations of domestic violence before making a child custody determination. Parents who’ve been wrongly accused should seek legal representation and cooperate with all aspects of the investigation.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Determining the Best Interests of the Child. 2016.

  2. American Bar Association. Arbitration.

By Jennifer Wolf
Jennifer Wolf is a PCI Certified Parent Coach and a strong advocate for single moms and dads.