The Arizona child custody process
A step-by-step guide
If you are meeting with an Arizona family attorney for the first time about a child custody, child support, or paternity matter, you almost certainly want to know what to expect during the legal process. To help prepare yourself for what lies ahead, you should get at least a general idea of how long the process takes, what it might cost, what is required of you, and what to expect. Not all these things can be determined precisely at this early stage, but the more information you gather, the better off you will be.
In Arizona, a child-custody establishment case takes at least three months but can take up to a year and sometimes even longer. The “even longer” part is probably not what you hoped to hear, but it is important to be realistic and understand that these matters take time. The biggest variable on the length of time and cost is whether, and if so to what extent, you and the other parent can work together to reach full agreement on everything that you need to decide. If you can do so, then you can get an uncontested decree (judge’s order). If the other side fails to respond or participate in the process, or does not do so in a timely manner, you may be able to get a default judgment. Otherwise, the matter becomes a contested proceeding with evidentiary hearing(s) and/or a trial.
The following is a high-level step-by-step outline of typical establishment proceedings in Arizona family courts. Some of the steps may not apply, depending on the nature of the matter and the direction it takes.
Fill out and file the papers to begin the case
You must start with the somewhat tedious exercise of filling out the many forms the court requires to start a case. These documents include:
- The Family Court cover sheet/Sensitive Data sheet, which contains confidential information commonly sought by identity thieves, such as Social Security numbers and birthdates. The court keeps this information safe, and it is not to be shared with the other party.
- The cover sheet (a separate one may not be required, depending on the county).
- The Summons to Respond/Appear.
- The Petition to Establish Paternity, Child Support, Child Custody (Legal Decision-Making and Parenting Time), and so forth, depending on the nature of the matter.
- The Notice of Appearance. This is filed with the court if an attorney is representing you from the beginning of the matter.
Although subject to change, the current filing fee for a Petition in Maricopa County is $338.00. For a Response, the filing fee in Maricopa County is $269.00. The amount of the fees may be different in other Arizona counties.
Serve the other party
The quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to serve the other party is via certified mail with return receipt and restricted delivery. You especially need to use restricted delivery if anyone else lives with the other party who might inadvertently sign for the delivery, which would invalidate the service. The cost for certified mail is around $10.00 to $15.00, depending on the weight (thickness of documents) and whether you ask for a physical postcard to be returned and/or electronic confirmation.
If the other party fails or refuses to sign for the certified mail, knowing or suspecting they are being served legal papers, then you have to hire a process server. This will likely cost you anywhere from $75.00 to $100.00, depending on the provider (constable/sheriff or private company), how far away you have to go to find the person, and how hard he or she is trying to evade service.
If you are unable to serve the other party by certified mail or process server, you can ask the court for permission to serve by alternate methods. You must show you have exhausted all reasonable methods first or have no idea where the person can be found. Service by posting is one option. It involves a process server physically attaching a posting and court papers in a conspicuous place on the person’s last-known residential property. Service by publication is another option. It requires putting a legal notice in a newspaper of general circulation in the county where the person was last known to be living, for four weeks in a row. The cost will likely be between $100.00 and $200.00, depending on the publication. The publication will give you a quote up front, prepare the legal notice, and provide proof of publication.
Take a parenting class
The court asks you to take a parenting class. Don’t take this personally. It does not mean you are a bad parent. It is a required step in the process.
You must take a certified parenting course within 45 days after the Respondent is served. The cost is $50.00. If you are in Maricopa County, go to the Arizona Superior Court’s web page on the Parent Information Program or Approved Parent Information Program Classes. Or call Family Court Conciliation Services at 602-506-1448.
Wait to file a consent decree
If you and the other parent agree on all terms of the child custody issues that the court requires you to address, and if you continue to agree on everything even after the filing of the petition, all you have to do is wait at least 60 days after service is effected to submit a consent decree that each of you has signed. You may have to wait a few days to a few weeks for a judge to get around to signing it—technically they have up to 60 days to rule—but you should receive the order no more than three months or so after starting the process.
It is possible you still might be required to go to at least one court hearing. The law says a hearing is at the judge’s discretion if one or more children are involved. But judges are so busy they may not make you do this.
Wait for a response
If the other party is served in-state, he or she has 20 days to respond (technically 25 days if the other party was served by mail). If the other party is served out-of-state, he or she gets 30 days to respond (35 days if served by mail). You do not count the day that the other person was served. You start counting from the day after that, and include weekends and any holidays. Also, if the last day falls on a weekend or holiday, then the other party has until the end of the next business day to file.
File for a default judgment
If the other party does not respond, you can ask the court to start default proceedings against him or her for failure to timely appear or file a response. He or she gets another 10 days’ grace period after that to file a response without penalty. If the other person still does not file a response, then you would file a final request for a default judgment along with a proposed default decree. Likely you will get everything you asked for in the petition, as long as it was reasonable. But you still have to wait at least 90 days from the date of filing the petition before a judge will sign off on the default decree.
Go to court
If the other parent does respond, the clerk’s office automatically refers the case to the assigned judge’s division for his or her assistant to set up a preliminary hearing, known as a Resolution Management Conference. At this hearing, the judge wants to hear from both sides as to whether any kind of agreement has been reached on any of the terms of the matter. He or she also refers the parties to Conciliation Court for mediation if there are any remaining terms to be addressed. If this does not result in a full agreement, the court sets a trial date.
If you must go to court, make sure you are represented by an experienced Arizona family law attorney. You and your family are much too important for you to go it alone.
Disclaimer: This legal guide provides general information, not legal advice that can be applied to any specific matter. It does not establish an attorney-client relationship.
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