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Legal Information: Puerto Rico


Laws current as of November 25, 2023

What are some pros and cons of starting a custody case?

There are many reasons people choose not to file for custody. Some people decide not to get a custody order because they don’t want to get the courts involved. Some parents make an informal agreement that works well for them. Some parents think going to court will provoke the other parent, or they are worried that if a custody case is started, the other parent will suddenly fight for (and get) more custody or visitation rights than they are comfortable with.

However, getting a custody order from a court can give you certain legal rights. Getting a custody order can give you:

  • The right to make decisions about your child and/or
  • The right to residency (to have your child live with you).

Without a custody order, it is possible that you may not have these legal rights, even if you’re the parent that takes care of the child every day. However, if you file for custody, the other parent may also request these rights and it will be up to the judge to decide.

We strongly recommend talking to a lawyer who can help you think through if filing for custody would be best for you, depending on the facts of your situation. You can find legal help by clicking on the PR Finding a Lawyer page.

Some people think they should file for custody so they can get child support. While custody and child support are related, you do not necessarily need a custody order to get child support. A custody order will not automatically give you child support. For information on filing for child support, you can contact your local courthouse by going to our PR Courthouse Locations page or talk to a lawyer.

Should I start a court case to ask for supervised visitation?

If you are not comfortable with the abuser being alone with your child, you might be thinking about asking the judge to order that visits with your child be supervised. If you are already in court, you may not have much to lose by asking that the visits be supervised if you can present a valid reason for your request, although this may depend on your situation.

However, if there is no current court case, please get legal advice before you start a court case to ask for supervised visits. We strongly recommend that you talk to an attorney who specializes in custody matters to find out what you would have to prove to get the visits supervised and how long supervised visits would last, based on the facts of your case.

In the majority of cases, supervised visits are only a temporary measure. Although the exact visitation order will vary by state/territory, county, or judge, the judge might order a professional to observe the other parent during a certain amount of visits or the visits might be supervised by a relative for a certain amount of time – and if there are no obvious problems, the visits may likely become unsupervised. Oftentimes, at the end of a case, the other parent ends up with more frequent and/or longer visits than s/he had before you went into court or even some form of custody.

If you need to protect your child from immediate danger by the abuser, starting a case to ask for custody and supervised visits can be appropriate. To find out what may be best in your situation, please go to our PR Finding a Lawyer page to seek out a lawyer who can give you legal advice.

What are the steps to file for custody?

Before filing for custody, you may consider drawing up an out-of-court agreement with the other parent. Usually, parents will have to be flexible when it comes to custody and visitation for the benefit of the child. Oftentimes, parents who fight for sole custody will litigate in court for months or even years and end up with some joint custody agreement after settlement or trial. However, sometimes fighting for sole custody is necessary because you can’t agree with the other parent, the other parent is not allowing contact, or you fear for your child’s well-being. Especially with domestic violence, many abusers will try to keep power and control over the victim-survivor through the child, so joint custody isn’t recommended due to the power difference in the relationship.

If you decide to file in court for custody, the process usually looks similar to this:

1. File for custody. You can file a petition for legal custody, custody, or visitation in the superior court closest to where the child lives.1 Depending on the circumstances, the judge can make an emergency or temporary order as part of your petition.The exact petition you file may depend on whether you are married or not:

  • If you are a married parent filing for divorce, you can usually include the custody petition within the divorce process.
  • If you are a married parent not filing for divorce, you can file for custody on its own in the county where the child has been living for at least six months.
  • You can also seek custody in court if you are an unmarried parent. However, if paternity hasn’t been established, which means that the father hasn’t been legally recognized, then this process will likely have to happen first or as part of the custody process. 

2. Prepare for the custody process

The court custody process is usually very long and emotionally and financially draining. If you represent yourself in court, you can learn about the court process and how to present evidence in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section. If you can hire an attorney, you can use this list of questions as your guide when deciding who to hire.

During the court process, you will try to prove why you should have your child’s custody. When preparing for court, you can gather evidence that helps make your case about why you should have custody of the child. This process should be directed by the factors the law says a judge should consider when deciding custody. You can see the question How will a judge decide custody? for more information. It’s important to consider that the judge will be focused on what is in the best interest of your child, and many states consider that this is to have a relationship with both parents.

3. Prepare for trial

There will be one or more hearings, including a trial if the parties cannot reach an agreement by themselves or as part of a mediation process. During trial, you or your attorney can present evidence and cross-examine the other party to help the judge make a decision.

If you are a victim of domestic violence, you can plan for your safety while in court and you should ask the judge to include some protections in the custody order. For example, you can ask for some of the following terms:

  • communications between the parents can only be in writing;
  • all communications can only be related to the child; and
  • a neutral third party should be present at the exchange of the child or the one to drop off and pick up the child.

You should also try to be as specific as possible in terms of the decision-making powers of each parent, who has the child on holidays, birthdays, etc., and the time and place for pick-ups and drop-offs of the child to avoid future conflicts.

4. Options if you lose the custody case

There could be a couple of options that are filed immediately after the judge makes the custody order:

  • motion for reconsideration asks the judge to decide differently based on the law or new evidence.
  • An appeal moves the case to a higher court and asks that court to review the lower court’s decision due to a judge’s error.

A petition to change (modify) the order is an option that would not be filed immediately. You could ask for a modification if, later on, a substantial change of circumstances happens. A few examples could be if the other parent gets sent to jail, gets charged with child abuse or neglect, or moves to another state. If you are already divorced, a petition for a change in custody can be filed in the county where the divorce was issued.

Please contact a lawyer to learn more about how the process works in your area. Please visit our Puerto Rico Finding a Lawyer page to find legal help in your area.​ You can also watch our Custody, Visitation, and Child Support videos, where we explain the process. The videos include information about the different types of custody and visitation and related legal concepts that a judge will consider regarding child support and moving out of state with your child.

1 32a L.P.R.A. AP. V § 3.5
2 31 L.P.R.A. §§ 6793 & 6809

How will a judge make a decision about custody and legal custody (patria protested)?

The public policy of Puerto Rico is to promote, as a first option, joint custody so that both parents are responsible for the child as long as it is in the best interests of the child.1 However, the judge could make a different decision regarding physical and legal custody based on what s/he believes is in the best interests of the child. The judge will consider any factor that s/he considers important to make a decision, including:

  1. the mental health of both parents and of the child;
  2. the level of responsibility or moral integrity of each parent;
  3. if there has been a history of domestic violence;
  4. the parents’ ability to fulfill the child’s emotional, moral, and financial current and future needs;
  5. the relationship of each parent with the child before and after the separation or divorce;
  6. the specific needs of each child;
  7. the relationship of the child with his/her parents, siblings, and other members of the family;
  8. the ability, availability, and commitment of the parents to raise the child jointly;
  9. the reasons that the parent or parents are requesting shared legal and/or physical custody;
  10. if the parents’ employment does or does not hinder shared custody;
  11. if the location and distance between the parents’ homes can hinder the child’s education;
  12. the communication between the parents and the ability to communicate directly or through other mechanisms; and
  13. any other criteria that could be considered to guarantee a custody arrangement that is in the best interests of the child.2

The judge will also analyze if there’s “parental alienation” or any other reasons that are causing the child to resist having a relationship with his/her parents.3

1 32 L.P.R.A. § 3181
2 31 L.P.R.A. § 7283
3 32 L.P.R.A. § 3185

Can I get a temporary custody as a part of a protection from abuse order?

When you file for a protection order, you can ask the judge to grant you temporary custody of the minor child.1 Usually, that custody order will be valid for the same period of time that the protection order is valid, which means it may be necessary to file for custody separately in superior court.

For more information about protection orders and what you can ask for in them, please read our section on What protections can I get in a protection order?

1 See 8 L.P.R.A. § 621

Do I need a lawyer to get custody, legal custody (patria potestad), or visitation?

You do not need a lawyer to file for custody, legal custody (patria potestad), or visitation. However, with the help of a lawyer, it may be easier for you to gather and present the information you will need to convince the judge of your position on what the custody or visitation schedule should be. Also, if the other parent has a lawyer, it will be more difficult for you to present your case without your own lawyer. For lawyers, some of whom might provide free legal assistance, go to our PR Finding a Lawyer page.

Note: Although Puerto Rico law does allow for self-representation (pro se litigation), the judge can decide that a person is unfit to represent himself/herself and order that s/he get a lawyer.1 In this link, you can find programs that help pro se litigants: Rama Judicial de Puerto Rico.

If you are going to be in court without a lawyer, our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section may be useful to you.

1 La Rama Judicial de Puerto Rico - Self-representation orientation