How to File for Child Custody in California

By Alisa Stevens

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Parental custody rights and procedures vary from state to state. In California, family courts focus on the health, safety and welfare of the child, basing decisions on what is in the best interests of the child, not the gender of the parent. During divorce proceedings, either parent can file for legal or physical custody of their minor children. In seeking custody, the parent must file child custody forms requesting a court order that awards sole or joint custody.

Download the forms you need from the California Courts website or from a third-party legal document service: an Order to Show Cause; an Application for Order and Supporting Declaration; and the Child Custody and Visitation Application.

Fill out the Order to Show Cause. Leave the case number line, hearing date and hearing time boxes blank. Include the address of the appropriate California Superior Court. Fill in your name as “petitioner” and your spouse’s on the “respondent” line. Check the “child custody” box. The clerk will complete the rest. Print the document.

Complete the Application for Order and Supporting Declaration. Write or type the name and age of each child. Select your preferences regarding legal custody, physical custody and visitation. For example, type your name under legal custody if you are asking the court for sole legal custody of the children. Provide information regarding your proposed visitation schedule, any restraining orders, child support agreements and any temporary orders regarding community property, including those related to family homes or cars. Print and sign the form.

Complete the Child Custody and Visitation Application form. Although optional, include this form since it provides additional information in support of your child custody filing. Include children’s names, dates of birth, and your preferences for legal and physical custody. Fill in your proposed visitation and holiday schedules, including transportation and exchange procedures. Print the form.

Attach any current custody and visitation agreements, domestic violence orders, or child and spousal support orders to your child custody package.

Make two complete copies of the child custody package.

File the form originals and the copies with the court clerk. File the child custody package with the same court handling your divorce proceedings. Pay the appropriate fee. The clerk will stamp the documents as proof of filing and set a hearing date. Take both copies from the clerk. Keep one copy for your records. The additional copy is for the other parent.

Download additional forms you need from the California Courts website or from a third-party legal document service: a Responsive Declaration to an Order to Show Cause or Notice of Motion and a Proof of Service of Summons form.

Arrange to serve the other parent with a stamped copy of the child custody package, including the Responsive Declaration and the blank forms at least 16 days before the scheduled hearing. California law does not allow the petitioner to serve child custody papers. The server must be an individual over 18 years old and not a party to the case. Once the papers are delivered, the server must complete the Proof of Personal Service form and return it to you.

File the completed Proof of Personal Service form with the court clerk at least five days before your hearing.


Contact a local family law attorney for legal advice regarding California’s child custody laws and procedures, especially in contested cases.

If child support is an issue, the court may order the completion of additional forms, including an Income and Expense Declaration; a Financial Statement form, and a Property Declaration form.

Provide the process server with a photo of the other parent and the other parent's typical schedule to assist in service.