How to File for Joint Custody

by Contributor

Going through a divorce or separation is never easy. When kids are involved, the process becomes even more of a headache. One way to make it easier on everyone is to file for joint custody. Joint custody gives both parents equal input in the everyday decisions of parenting. For example, under a joint custody arrangement both parents will be able to make decisions in terms of education, religion and health care. In some states, joint custody also means the kids will live equally with both parents. However, every state has their own individual and specific rules on joint custody, so be sure to contact an attorney. Here's a general overview of how the process works.

Contact your attorney. Filing for joint custody is complex, rule-driven and hard to understand. It is best that you hire an experienced professional. Look for an attorney who specializes in family law or custody disputes.

Think like a judge. The judge will ultimately make the decision, so it's best to look at your situation through the eyes of a judge. Most states require a determination of joint custody unless the court is presented with reasoning demonstrating why such an arrangement is not in the child's best interest. Do you know of any reason why joint custody would be harmful to the children?

Draft the petition. Your attorney will draft the joint custody petition for you, but you will need to supply the information. If there is already a custody order from the court, you will file a motion to amend the custody order. In the petition, you will include your reasoning why the order should be changed. Your argument should focus on what has changed in either your or the other parent's life since the time of the original order that makes having a joint custody arrangement in the best interest of the child. If there is no custody order in existence, then you will either file a motion for joint custody by itself or include it within your petition for divorce.

File the petition. You must file your petition with the clerk of court in the proper state or district court. Filing can become complicated when there is more than one state involved. Your attorney will know the rules, but typically jurisdiction is granted to the home state of the child. The home state is any state where the child has resided for at least six consecutive months.

Pay a filing fee. Every clerk of court's office determines their own filing fees. Fees generally range between $50 and $100.

Serve notice. After the petition is properly filed, notice of its filing must be served on the other parent. This can be done by regular mail, certified mail, sheriff or, in limited situations, by publication. Your attorney will handle this step.

Try to compromise. Once the other parent has an opportunity to file a response to your petition, the parties will often enter into mediation. Usually a joint custody arrangement is a compromise outcome of these mediations. Some courts mandate that the parties attempt to resolve custody disputes through mediation.

The final step is going to a hearing or trial. If no compromise is reached, the parties will have to go before a court and present evidence and testimony as to why it is in the best interest of the child that a joint custody arrangement be ordered. At the close of the evidence, the judge will make a decision.

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Items you will need

  • Credit card
  • Attorney
  • Checkbook


  • When you meet with your attorney, ask him or her directly about previous experience with custody disputes.
  • If you are unable to afford the filing fee or an attorney, try contacting your local Legal Aid office. This is an affordable option that is better than simply trying to represent yourself.


  • Never take your child for longer than a court order says you can have him or her. This could constitute kidnapping, a criminal offense punishable by prison.
  • Be sure you understand what your state means by joint custody. Some states separate joint custody from physical care. In such a scenario, joint custody pertains only to a sharing of the decision-making responsibilities whereas physical care is determinative of the living arrangements. Oftentimes a court will order joint custody with sole physical care to the primary caretaker and the other parent getting liberal visitation rights.

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