How to Serve Child Custody Papers

If you have just filed for custody, you must serve the other party so that they can respond to your summons within a specified time. In most states, you are required to serve papers within 120 days while in others like Michigan, you should serve the other parent within 91 days. Failure to serve the defendant within the time stipulated by the court may make your case be dismissed. 

Once the defendant or the respondent has received the summons, he or she is required to file a response within 21 days, that is to say, he or she has 20 calendar days to respond to the complaints from the petitioner. If the papers were served through the mail, the respondent is given 7 more days to respond, that is 28 days. 

The respondent must also know that failure to respond to a summons by the court may issue an order of default or the court may assume that you are in agreement with what the petitioner is seeking and child custody orders may be issued without your input. 

There are several ways to serve the other parent once you have filed for child custody. It all depends on where the respondent lives, and if the papers can be delivered by hand or other means. But before we discuss how to serve, first it is important to understand the background on what kinds of papers to serve, who can serve, and when to serve. 

What are the papers to serve?

Some of the papers that you can serve to the other parent after filing your case include the summons and the copy of the child custody petition. Of course, there can be other papers depending on the nature of your case such as the Joint Preliminary Induction. 

The petition you have filed 

Once you have filed a child custody petition with the court, the next step is to ensure that that petition is served to the other parent. Therefore, you should get a copy of the filed complaint served to the other party so that they can go through your petition and prepare for the hearing or defense. 


Together with the copies of your complaint, you must serve the other party with a summons by the court. This is to inform the respondent of the lawsuit so that they can respond or appear in court within a specified time. 

When to serve child custody papers

As we mentioned, once you have filed for custody, you have 120 days to serve your papers. In some states like Michigan, you only have 91 days to serve the child custody papers to the respondent. 

Who can serve child custody papers?

Child custody papers should be served by a person who is neutral to the case and above 18 years of age. It is worth noting that family members, friends, and any party that may raise questions in court must not serve child custody papers. 

In addition to that, you cannot serve the child custody papers yourself unless the court is willing to appoint you as a special process server. 

There are different ways that you can get your papers served by a third party. This can be done through hand delivery by a sheriff, process server, or you can pay a private process service to deliver the papers to the defendant. 

Once the documents have been served whether by a sheriff, process server, or a private party, an Affidavit of Service must be filled out to show when, where, and the documents that were served. 

How to serve 

Different tactics can be used to serve the defendant after a filing for custody has been made. Whatever means that you use to serve, you should ensure that the respondent receives the papers within the days stipulated by the court and that the papers be served by a neutral third party as we have mentioned. The options to serve to include:

Hand delivery 

If you want to serve the defendant through hand delivery, you should choose a person that is not a party in the case. A third party can include a sheriff, courts’ process server, private server, police department, or any other person that is above the age of 18 years as we mentioned earlier. 

Through certified mail 

If the option is by mail, you should use certified mail and attach all the relevant documents that you want to send. That should include the summons, copy of child custody complaint, and an Affidavit of Return of Service by Certified Mail for the recipient to sign. 

When using email, you should request a return receipt so that you can be sure that the mail was delivered. 


On rare occasions, where you have exhausted all other options available, a publication in the local newspaper can also work. This is useful when you don’t know where the other parent lives, or how to contact him or her. Before you do list a publication, you must first do enough investigation of the whereabouts of the other parent. 

As stated, the publication is a rare option that you may use if all other options cannot work. However, it is important to talk to your attorney about the matter so that he or she can advise on the best way possible when the other parent cannot be traced. 

Acceptance of service 

This is a method that you can also use if you are on good terms with your ex-spouse and he or she is willing to waive the service. This is the only way where you can hand deliver the papers yourself to the other parent, and he or she would then sign a sworn statement that they have received the summons and any other papers regarding child custody. 


As we have discussed, there are few options that you can use to serve the other party once you have filed for a child custody case. That is through the mail, hand delivery by a neutral third party, and publication. The papers must be served within the timelines stipulated by the court and may vary from one state to another. The respondent after receiving the papers or summons must also file a response or appear in court for the hearing also within the times that have been stipulated by the court.