How to Get Custody of Your Child

Learn How to File for Child Custody and Win

When you file for custody, you're in it to win. And that means doing everything in your power to accurately present your side of the story in the hope that the judge will make you the custodial parent. For most single parents, physical child custody is the most important issue, towering over child support and legal custody. But where do you start? The following steps will help you get custody of your child.


Speak with a Lawyer

Mom and daughter having fun at a park

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Technically, you do not have to hire a lawyer to get custody of your child. However, it is strongly advised. If you don't already have a lawyer, consider at least scheduling a free consultation with an experienced family law attorney in order to learn more about your case.


Know the Child Custody Laws in Your State

In order to get custody of your child, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the child custody laws in your state. This is true even if you're already working with a lawyer. Look at it this way: the more you can learn firsthand, the better. Make it a priority and take the time to do your own research.

Develop a list of the questions you have as you work through the fine print, too. And if you are working with a lawyer, be sure to ask those questions before your next child custody hearing.


Access Your State's Custody Resources

Many states now make their child custody information available online, including the forms necessary to file for custody. Printing these at home can save you the time it would take to go to the courthouse directly. 


Complete All of the Necessary Forms

Be careful to complete each form in full. You don't want to cause unnecessary delays by leaving one or two boxes empty or providing insufficient information.

Take note of whether your state requires your application to be notarized as well. If it does, complete every section except the signature and then visit your local notary public. Many bank branches offer this service free of charge.


File the Forms at Your Local Courthouse

Most states require you to file your child custody forms in person. If you choose to work with a lawyer, they will do this for you. If you're doing it on your own, remember that the clerk cannot give you legal advice. They can only provide instructions for filing the paperwork.

Having said that, being polite and friendly never hurts! The clerk can be a powerful resource as you prepare for your hearing.


Prepare for Your Court Date

Whether you're working with a lawyer or representing yourself pro se, you'll need to prepare for court. It's likely that the hearing will last 15 to 20 minutes, especially if it's the first in a series of child custody hearings.

So, think carefully about what you really want to say, because you'll only have a few minutes to share your point of view. It helps to write out a list of the issues you want to address, and then narrow it down to the most important topics. Practice what you want to say with a friend, too, so that you can further trim down your talking points.


Attend the Child Custody Hearing

This is obvious when you want to get custody of your child, but you'd be surprised how many parents miss the actual court date or show up late. Make sure you arrive early. Put some thought into your appearance as well, and make sure you dress professionally for your court appearance.


Present Your Case

Your time to speak in court will be brief. And because there's no jury, you don't have to worry about speaking to a group of people. Try your best to stay calm, and speak slowly and loudly.

Don't allow yourself to be rattled by anything that your ex says, either. Simply present the facts of your case, as you know them. In addition, remember to listen twice as much as you speak. Never interrupt the judge, and make sure you answer every question completely.


Be Patient

This is the hardest part. Many parents go into court expecting that the judge will issue a decision immediately, but in most cases, it takes several court appearances for the judge to make a final child custody determination. Be patient and trust that you've done all you can up until this point to get custody of your child.


Abide By the Judge's Decision

When the judge does eventually make a ruling, abide by that decision. If you don't get custody of your child this time around, know that you can appeal to the court to reconsider at a later date.

In the meantime, do everything that the court recommends, whether that's taking a parenting class, getting a job, or moving into a larger apartment. Do whatever is in your power to meet any demands set by the court, and trust that when your case is revisited in the future, your efforts will pay off.

4 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. Fortson R, Payne TC. Lawyering up: The effects of legal counsel on outcomes of custody determinations. UC Davis Journal of Juvenile Law and Policy. 2018;22(1):1-36.

  2. United States District Court, District of Massachusetts. Frequently asked questions about pro se litigation.

  3. National Notary Association. Finding a notary public.

  4. Virginia Legal Aid Society. How to take a child custody or visitation case to court.

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