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Legal Information: General

Custody

Where can I file for child custody? Which state has jurisdiction?

In most situations, you can file for custody in the “home state” of the child. The “home state” is the state where the child has lived (with a parent or a person acting as a parent) for at least the last six consecutive months before a parent files for custody - however there are exceptions to this rule. (Note: Temporary absence from the state does not affect the six-month calculation.) If your child is less than six months old, the “home state” is usually the state where the child has lived from birth.

If you and your child recently moved to a new state, you may not be able to file for long-term custody in that new state until you have lived there for at least six months, though you may be able to file for emergency jurisdiction. Also, if there is a prior court order for custody, then you may have to file in that same court to change the custody order as long as one parent still lives in that state. We strongly suggest getting advice from an attorney about your particular situation.

If there is more than one state involved - for example, if the child has moved across state lines, or if the other parent is in a different state or tribal jurisdiction - then custody cases can be more complicated. In these cases, state, federal, and tribal laws may govern which court can hear your custody case. Therefore, as in all custody cases, it is very important that you find a knowledgable lawyer.

If you are trying to get temporary emergency custody in a new state you have moved to, it might depend on what state you are filing in. All states except for Massachusetts (and Puerto Rico) follow the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). Under the UCCJEA, you can file for temporary emergency custody in a state other than the home state if:

  1. the child is present in the state, and
  2. the child has been abandoned or needs emergency protection, because the child (or a sibling or parent of the child) is subjected to or threatened with mistreatment or abuse.

Massachusetts follows a slightly different law called the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (UCCJA), and Puerto Rico follows the federal Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA).

Getting emergency custody is difficult, so please talk to a lawyer before you file with the clerk of court. You may also want to talk to a domestic violence advocate about your options and for help in finding a lawyer.

Under certain circumstances, there may be other ways to file for custody. Please talk to a lawyer about this. Go to our Finding a Lawyer page for legal referrals. Also, if you have a custody case involving more than one state (or if you are considering relocating to another state) and there is a history of domestic violence, you may call the Legal Resource Center on Violence Against Women at 301-270-1550 for information and referrals.

To learn more about interstate custody, you can watch our 20-minute Online Information Clinic video entitled Interstate Custody and Domestic Violence.