How to File for Child Custody in Virginia

By Valerie Stevens

Grandmother and grandson

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Virginia has a system called concurrent jurisdiction for handling issues of child custody, visitation and support. Two separate courts -- the Circuit Court and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court -- have the authority to rule on these issues. The Circuit Court rules on custody petitions that are part of divorce or separation cases. The J&DR Court rules on all other custody petitions. Orders from the J&DR Court can be appealed to the Circuit Court.

Verify that you meet the residency laws for Virginia custody cases. The child must have lived in the state for at least six months before you can file a petition for custody.

Contact the J&DR Court in your county and make an appointment to obtain custody forms. If you are filing as part of a divorce or separation, contact the Circuit Court and ask if they have forms available.

Prepare a custody petition emphasizing the factors Virginia uses to determine what is in the best interests of the child. Virginia law dictates factors that judges must consider in awarding custody, including the child’s age and physical and mental condition, the parents’ ages as well as their physical and mental conditions, the parent-child relationships, the child’s relationship with siblings and extended family, each parents’ history as caregiver, each parent's willingness to support the child’s bond with the other parent, the child’s preference, and any history of family abuse.

Complete an affidavit that provides information required by the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Enforcement Act, which is enforced in Virginia. The affidavit should include the addresses where the child has lived, who else lived there, the primary caretaker at each location and any court cases that have involved the child.

Prepare a summons, which informs the other party how long he has to answer your petition. In some counties, the court will prepare this document for you.

Sign all documents in the presence of a notary public or court official. If you have hired a lawyer, she can sign the forms for you.

File these documents with the J&DR Court or the Circuit Court. Present three copies of all documents to the clerk for filing – one for the court, one for you and one for the other party. Typically, the court clerk will assign the date, time, and place of the first court hearing so that the other parent will have this information when served with the documents.

Pay the filing fee. If you cannot afford the filing fee, ask the court for an affidavit to request a waiver.

Have the documents served on the other parent by a law enforcement officer or process server. If the other parent lives out of state, the court clerk can mail the documents, or you can arrange to have them personally delivered. If you do not know where the other parent is, you may have to publish a notice in a newspaper.

File a document with the court to verify that the other parent has been properly served.


The other parent has 21 days to respond to your petition after he has been served. How he responds determines what happens throughout the rest of your case. In contested cases, you will be required to attend a parenting seminar and a guardian ad Litem might be appointed to represent the child. Mediation is held in some cases.

Consulting a lawyer is a good idea in all custody cases.