Filing for Child Custody in Maryland

By Heather Frances J.D.

Father and daughter

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When parents divorce, the court makes custody decisions and includes them in the final divorce decree. A Maryland court may award joint or sole physical custody, joint or sole legal custody, or some combination of both. Legal custody is the right to make important decisions about a child, such as where the child will go to school or church; physical custody represents which parent the child lives with and takes care of the child's day-to-day needs. If a court gives sole physical custody to one parent, it may also issue a visitation order to the non-custodial parent, allowing him to spend time with the child.

Parenting Agreements

When parents in Maryland decide to divorce, they are encouraged to work out a custody arrangement and parenting plan that works best for their family. Often, the court requires parents to attempt to reach an agreement before the court makes its own decision about custody. If the parents are able to agree, the court will usually approve the parents’ plan, so long as it is in the best interests of the child.

Filing a Complaint

When parents can’t agree, the court will determine custody arrangements. Disputed custody cases usually begin with a custody or divorce complaint. In Maryland, the child must be a resident of the state for at least six months before a parent can file for custody. On your complaint form, you must indicate why you believe it is in the best interests of the child that you be given custody. Once you file your complaint, you must serve the other parent with a copy of the complaint, a summons and any other supporting paperwork you filed with the court. The other parent has a specified amount of time in which to file an answer to your complaint.


If the other parent doesn’t file an answer to the complaint within the allotted time, you can request that the court issue a default order to give you custody. If the other parent does answer, you must request a hearing with the court where each parent presents evidence and witnesses to support the case for custody. After the court hears all the evidence, it makes a custody decision that it believes is in the best interests of the child. To make this decision, the court considers aspects of the child’s life such as the relationship between each parent and with the child, the fitness level of each parent and their respective living situations.

Order and Modification

Circumstances may change after the Maryland court issues a custody order. For example, one parent may marry, get a new job or move farther away. If the circumstances change significantly, either parent may request a modification of the original custody order by asking the same court to change it. The parent making the request for modification must prove to the court that the change is in the best interests of the child.