You've Been Served with Custody Papers in Virginia: Now What?

Getting served with legal papers is a frightening experience. A stranger, sometimes even a sheriff, hands you an envelope that contains multiple pages of legalese. Many people go their whole lives without being involved in a legal action, so it is a new, unpleasant experience to know that you are going to have to deal with the legal system. It can be infinitely worse if the papers seem to be about the custody of your child. Here are some first steps to help navigate the experience.

First Thing: READ the Papers

It may be tempting to put them on your desk under some utility bills and ignore the problem. However, these filings may include deadlines, court hearings and other important information that you need to know in order to prepare. The last thing you want to do is to disadvantage yourself or your counsel regarding the custody of your child because you didn’t make it to a court hearing, and a decision was made in your absence.   

Identify the Court: Juvenile and Domestic Relations or Circuit

For a parent or guardian of children, there are two ways that custody can arise. Identifying which of these is in play will tell you what court is involved. First, custody can be an independent matter brought in the Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. These generally arise if the parents are not married or when a non-parent adult wants to obtain custody. They are independent matters and the first time you are served with papers usually indicates the beginning of the case, which means nothing has been decided yet. However, the papers will set a date and time for a status conference where you will be required to appear in court. Second, custody comes up in Virginia Circuit Court divorce and post-divorce cases. If part of a divorce case, the custody papers will likely not be the first time you hear about the situation. They may pertain to a specific action being asked of the court by your spouse called a “motion.” In such instances, the papers may indicate the date and time of a hearing.

Is Now the Time to Talk to the Other Party?

Upon receiving papers, your first instinct might be to contact the other party. This is only forbidden if there is an explicit protective order preventing you from such contact. You will either already have received that order, or the papers will spell this out. Even if it isn’t illegal, you may want to think twice about making that call. You will be understandably upset, and you may say something that is used against you later in the matter. If you do feel the need to make contact, be sure to be calm and neutral in what you communicate to the other party.

Meeting with Counsel

With the custody of your children at stake, it is strongly recommended that you confer with counsel about your rights and obligations. Remember, even if you don’t actually want physical custody, the proceeding could involve the imposition of child support obligations or other obligations or impacts your rights and you will want a say about that. When meeting with counsel, make sure to bring all of the legal paperwork with you. If you have other important records about the children such as communications, photographs (especially if there is abuse), etc. that are relevant, then you should bring those as well. Your attorney will better be able to counsel you on next steps with a fuller picture.

Preparing for the Status Conference

In Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court matters, there will an important initial status conference. Pre-COVID-19 the status conference was usually set on a date 4-5 weeks from the date of filing of the papers, but the calendar has changed due to the pandemic, and it is possible that the hearing will be virtual. At the conference, the court will ask for a short summary of the case, and then set a trial date and time. The conference only lasts for a few minutes, and the most important issue is the timing of the trial and permission to discover information about the other party’s case. Come with your attorney and your calendar, so you can make sure there isn’t a conflict in your schedule.

Have you been served with papers relating to the custody of your children? Contact ReeseLaw to set up a consultation to help decide how to respond.

DISCLAIMER. The material contained on this Website is not offered, nor should it be construed, as legal advice. The material on our Website has been prepared and published for informational purposes only. You should not act or rely upon information contained in these materials without specifically seeking professional legal advice.

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