What will the custody process look like?
It depends. Most of the time, after one or both parents file for custody in court, the parents (possibly with their attorneys) will come to some sort of agreement about child custody. If they can agree, the judge will review that agreement and, under most circumstances, turn it into a formal court order.
Sometimes, parents cannot come to an agreement. In that case, a judge might order the parents into mediation, where a mediator tries to get you and the other parent to come to an agreement.* If you are afraid of the other parent, or there is a history of family abuse, be sure to tell this to the judge since mediation may likely not be appropriate. For more information, see What is mediation and who pays for it?
A judge may also order that the parents attend a seminar or program that addresses the effects of separation or divorce on children, parenting responsibilities, options for conflict resolution and financial responsibilities. The fee charged for participation in such program cannot be more than $50 but the exact amount charged will be based on the parent's ability to pay.**
If the parents still cannot agree, or the judge does not order mediation, then there is a trial where both parents can present evidence and witnesses to strengthen their case. There may be one hearing date or a series of hearings. At the end of the trial, the judge will decide who will get custody and what other terms will go into the custody order. If you think that your case is headed for trial, we strongly suggest that you get a lawyer to represent you. Custody cases can be complicated and it is often best to have someone in court by your side, who can help you through the process. See our VA Finding a Lawyer page for more information on how to find a lawyer in Virginia.
* Va. Code § 20-124.4
** Va. Code §§ 16.1-278.15(A); 20-103(A)