By responding to a complaint or petition for custody, you have the opportunity to tell the court your side of the story. While state laws vary, a parent will generally file a responsive declaration for child custody, also known as an answer, after the other parent has filed for custody of the children when the parents do not agree on the custody arrangement. After the petition and response are filed, the court will determine the custody arrangement based on the best interests of the child.
After receiving a complaint for custody, you may have a specified amount of time to respond to the claims. Depending on the laws of your state, the deadline may be 20 to 30 days. You may be able to obtain a response form from the court clerk in some states. In general, you will need to agree or disagree with each claim made by your spouse and explain why it is in the child's best interests for you to have custody. You will then make two copies of the form, sending the original to the court while keeping one copy for yourself and providing the other copy to your spouse.
Facts and Evidence
All states make custody determinations based on what is in the best interests of the child. As a result, the facts that you include in your response should focus on the needs of your child. For example, the court will be interested in the health and ability of each parent to take care of the child, as well as any history of domestic violence or drug abuse. For anything that you assert in the response, you should have evidence to back up the claims in court. As a result, it is important to focus on the facts, and present the information in a reasonable and mature manner.
Failing to Respond
If you do not file a response to the custody petition, the court may decide the custody arrangement without your input. Specifically, if your spouse does not receive a response by the end of the time period, she may ask the court to schedule a default hearing. If you do not show up to the default hearing, the custody arrangement will be finalized without your input. However, the court will still make the custody decision based on what is in the best interests of the child.
Hiring an Attorney
You may represent yourself throughout the divorce and child custody process. However, with more complicated situations, you may decide to get professional help from an attorney. For example, custody proceedings may become complicated for victims of domestic violence, particularly for someone also looking to file a restraining order. Further, if the parents live in two different states, an attorney may help with determining jurisdictional issues and whether or not you have to respond to a custody petition if you live out of state.