Procedures to Begin or Join a Family Court Case about Custody and/or Visitation

If you are interested in getting custody of or visitation with your child, before reading this Appendix, we first recommend you read the following sections of this Chapter: STEPS FOR RECONNECTING (see PG. 728). ; BASICS ABOUT CUSTODY AND VISTATION (see PG. 732) These sections will help you understand the legal meaning of custody and visitation, what each looks like in real life, how your criminal record generally affects your rights to custody and/or visitation, and first steps to take if you are interested in reconnecting with a child in reentry. After reading these sections, if you would like to open a case in Family Court, the information below will help you understand how to begin or join a family court case.

Get help.

If you have any questions about starting a case and/or if you need help with deciding which form to pick and file, and/or what kind of case you should bring to family court, you can and should contact a lawyer, the Family Law Facilitator who works at your county family court (see Appendix A, PG. 797 to find your local Family Law Facilitator), and/or a legal aid provider.

Decide what type of case you are opening in Family Court—and fill out all the necessary forms.

    Petition for divorce or legal separation (FL-100): If you were married and now want to be divorced from the other parent who has custody of your child, you will file for divorce in family court. For more information of divorce or legal separation, see PG. 822.
    Petition for Dissolution of civil partnership/legal separation (FL-103): If you were in a domestic partnership (a same-sex relationship registered with the State of California) and now want to legally terminate that partnership from the other parent who has custody of your child, you would file for dissolution of domestic partnership in family court. Learn more about divorce/legal separation on PG. 822.
    Petition for custody and support of minor children (FL-260): If you were unmarried and the parentage of your child has already been officially established, then you can file a petition for custody and support of minor children in family court. [2620]
    Petition to establish parental relationship (FL-200): If you were unmarried and the parentage of your child has not been established in family court, you can file a petition to establish parental relationship.

HELPFUL HINTSAssistance, Forms, & Fees in Family Court

    Family court forms for requesting custody and visitation are available on the California Courts’ website at you have general questions or need assistance filling out your court forms, ask the court Family Law Facilitator to help you. If you have questions about your specific case or circumstances, you should talk to a lawyer.Filing the court papers to request custody or visitation can be very expensive ($400-$500). If you cannot afford to pay this, you can request a fee waiver from the court clerk when you file your papers. Once you file the forms by mailing them to the family court or bringing them to the court in person, you must wait and make sure the family court accepts your forms, that the documents were acceptable. Once you receive notice that the family court accepted the forms, you can move to STEP 4.

File all of the necessary forms with the family court to join or start a new case. Depending on the court, you may have to file your court forms in person. Pay the filing fees, or if you are low-income or on public benefits, ask for a fee waiver.Once you receive notice from the family court that your forms were acceptable, you must serve a copy of the forms you filed as well as a response form on the person you are bringing a court case against in family court, usually here it will be your child’s other parent.

When a case in family court is first filed, it must be personally served on the other party or parties. This means that you cannot mail the forms, but have to find someone to hand deliver the forms to whomever you are suing. This is called “service of process.” Any adult over the age of 18 can do this for you.

Once the family court accepts your forms and you serve the papers on the other party or parties in the case, the judge in family court will order one, two or all three of the following:

    Schedule a hearing you must attend and/or
    Require you and the other parent to attend a mediation
    And/or order a custody evaluation.

IMPORTANT!: Completing these steps means you are now involved in an active custody and/or visitation case involving your child. Family court cases, like all court cases, require a lot of paperwork, documents, and forms. Navigating all the court forms and processes can be, and often is, very confusing. We are trying to simplify this process for you by not bogging you down with details on each step mentioned above. As a result, we strongly recommend you get help from another person or legal aid organization that specializes in the family court process. They can and will help with all the specifics on forms, documents, paperwork, and processes. You should talk to a lawyer, the Family Law Facilitator who works at your county family court, and/or a legal aid provider. See referrals to legal aid organizations beginning on PG. 1127.


  1. 2620

    Cal. Fam. Code § 3020.