Child Custody & Parenting Time

Below is an overview of child custody and parenting time in Minnesota District Court. Read through the Definitions tab for commonly used words in custody and parenting time cases, and read through the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) tab for more information.

Under MN law, there are two types of child custody: physical custody and legal custody. Legal custody is the right to make important decisions for the child, including decisions about education, health care, and religion. Physical custody is the right to make decisions about the routine day-to-day activities of the child(ren) and where the child(ren) lives. 

Custody and parenting time issues are decided in many situations, including:

  1. when married parents are filing for divorce or legal separation;
  2. when unmarried parents who have signed a Recognition of Parentage file a custody case;
  3. in court actions to determine paternity of a child;
  4. in domestic abuse Order for Protection cases;
  5. when a child lives with and is cared for by a third party, such as a grandparent or legal guardian; and
  6. when a child is involved in a "child in need of protection or services" (CHIPS) case or a juvenile delinquency case.

Custody Evaluation

An investigation and report with recommendations about custodial arrangements for a child that can be ordered by the judge in contested custody cases.

Custody Evaluator

A person ordered by the court to gather information about the parties and child(ren) through interviews, observations, and home visits, and then make recommendations about custody and parenting time to the court. A custody evaluator may be appointed in certain divorce or custody cases.

Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE)

A confidential, voluntary evaluation designed to help quickly resolve disputes in custody, parenting time, and financial matters. For more information, please see the Early Case Management Help Topic.

Ex Parte

A Latin phrase meaning “on one side only; by or for one party.” An ex parte communication is when a party to a case, or someone involved with a party, talks, writes to, or otherwise communicates directly with the judge about the issues in the case without including the other parties.

Guardian ad Litem (GAL)

An advocate for a child whose best interests are being considered by the court. GALs investigate, monitor, and advocate for the best interests of the child throughout the court process while maintaining confidentiality, and make recommendations about custody and parenting time. GALs are typically appointed when there are safety concerns for the child. Appointment may be optional in certain divorce or custody cases, but in some situations it is required by law.

Joint Child

A child that both parties have in common, meaning both parties are parents of the child.

Legal Custody

The right to make important decisions for the child, including decisions about education, health care, and religion. Legal custody can be sole (to one parent only) or joint (to both parents).

Non-Joint Child

A child of one, but not both, parties in a case. 

Parenting Consultant

A third party who may be appointed to help the parties resolve certain parenting time and other parenting issues (such as what school a child should attend or what sports they should participate in). A parenting consultant can only be appointed by the court if the parties agree and can only decide the specific issues listed in their contract and court order.

Parenting Time

The time each parent spends with the child(ren), regardless of who has custody. This used to be called “visitation.”

Parenting Time Expeditor

A third party who may be appointed to help the parties resolve parenting time problems. Under MN law, the parenting time expeditor will first try to help the parties reach an agreement. However, the parenting time expeditor will make a decision settling the problem if the parties are not able to resolve it. The parenting time expeditor cannot make a decision that changes the existing parenting time order. 

Physical Custody

The right to make decisions about the routine day-to-day activities of the child(ren) and where the child(ren) lives. Physical custody can be sole (to one parent only) or joint (to both parents).

Reasonable Parenting Time

A parenting time arrangement in which no specific parenting time schedule is set and the court leaves it up to the parents to figure out when they will each spend time with the child(ren).

Reserved Parenting Time

A parenting time status in which the court has not made a set parenting time schedule, but one may be created in the future. If you ask the court to reserve parenting time, it means you are not asking for a decision about parenting time at this time.

Specific Parenting Time

A parenting time arrangement in which the court order sets a specific schedule for when the child(ren) is with each parent. This schedule may include holidays, birthdays, and vacation time as well as a regular schedule.

Supervised Parenting Time

A parenting time arrangement in which a parent’s time with the child(ren) must be supervised by someone else. Depending on the court order, the supervision may be by a friend or family member or by a professional supervisor, usually at a supervised center. In some situations, the other parent may provide the supervision.

Suspended Parenting Time

Also called “denied parenting time,” a parenting time arrangement in which the court does not allow one parent to have any parenting time with the child(ren). Parenting time is generally suspended or denied due to concerns for the child(ren)’s physical or emotional health or development.

Third Party Custody

When the court grants custody of a child to someone other than the child’s biological, adopted, or legal parent.

The other parent and I were never married, but we signed a Recognition of Parentage and we are both on the child’s birth certificate. Who has custody?

By law, if the mother and the father of a child were not married at the time of the child's birth, the mother has sole custody of the child until a court issues a custody order. This is true even if the parents have signed a Recognition of Parentage and both names appear on the child's birth certificate. See Minn. Stat. § 257.541.

How is custody decided?

If parents do not agree on issues of legal or physical custody, the court must make a decision that is in the best interest of the child(ren). MN law lists several factors that the judge must consider when making custody decisions. See Minn. Stat. § 518.17 to read more about the best interest factors.  

Can I file for emergency custody?

Emergency “ex parte” actions involve one party asking the court for a hearing and/or order without first giving notice to the other parties in the case about their request. If you want to ask for an emergency custody order, you have to show that you need the order to prevent “immediate and irreparable injury, loss, or damage.” See Minn. R. Civ. Pro. § 65.01.  

Common examples of emergency situations include, but are not limited to:
  • safety concerns for the child(ren);
  • the non-custodial parent will not return the child(ren) to the parent who has custody;
  • one parent has left the state or country without the other parent’s permission;
  • one parent is reasonably afraid the other parent has plans to leave the state or country without the other parent’s permission; or
  • one parent needs an immediate order so that the child(ren) can get medical treatment or be enrolled in school.
The MN Judicial Branch does not publish forms to ask the court to hear a custody matter on an emergency ex parte basis. You might find sample forms at your local law library, but we strongly encourage you to talk to a lawyer about your situation.

Under what circumstances can custody be changed?

Under MN law, custody can be changed when:
  • Both parents agree to the change;
  • The parent with custody has let the child become a part of the other parent’s home;
  • The child’s current environment is endangering their physical or emotional health or development, and the change is less harmful than the current situation; or
  • The primary custodial parent asked to move with the child out of state, the court denied the request, and the parent moved anyway.
Keep in mind there may be time limits that impact when you can ask the court to change custody. See Minn. Stat. § 518.18 for more information.

I want to move out of state with the child(ren) but the other parent won’t agree to the move. What can I do?

If the other parent has court-ordered parenting time, you must get their permission or a court order allowing you to move with the child(ren). If you ask for a court order, the court must decide if the move would be in the child(ren)’s best interests. The court considers several factors, including the child(ren)’s age and how the move would impact them, the child(ren)’s relationship with both parents, and how the relationship with the other parent could be maintained.
 
The MN Judicial does not publish forms to ask the court to be allowed to move out of state with the child(ren). You might find sample forms at your local law library, but we strongly encourage you to talk to a lawyer about your situation.

Can I get custody of a child who isn’t mine?

It may be possible for someone other than the biological, adopted, or legal parent to get custody of someone else’s child. This is generally called third party custody. This area of law is complicated and there many other legal options that could allow someone else to care for or make decisions for a child that is not their own. These options include: To learn more about the options listed above, you can review the Legal Steps Manual: Raising Relatives' Children, which explains some possible legal options related to caring for someone else's child. You could also contact the Kinship Support Line (Lutheran Social Service of MN) at (651) 917-4640 (metro), (877) 917-4640 (toll-free), or by emailing warmline@lssmn.org.

You are strongly encouraged to talk to a lawyer if you want to get custody of someone else’s child.

Can I give someone temporary custody of my child?

The only way for someone to officially get custody of a child, whether it is temporary or not, is by getting a court order. However, if a parent wants to give another adult temporary authority to provide a home for a child and make decisions about the child's schooling, medical care, etc., the parent may be able to use a non-court form called a Delegation of Parental Authority (DOPA). Use of this form does NOT grant custody of a child under MN law.

What can I do if the other parent isn’t following the court-ordered parenting time schedule?

You have several options when the other parent isn’t following a court order, including:
 
  • Mediation: Many custody and parenting time orders require the parties to try to settle their disagreements outside of court before either of them can file a motion with the court. Mediation is a confidential process that can help you settle your disagreement and may be a faster way to resolve the issue than going to court. Please see the Alternative Dispute Resolution Help Topic for more information about mediation. You may also want to review the Settle Out of Court Help Topic.
  • Parenting Time Assistance Motion: This can be used to ask the court to change a parenting time schedule, enforce an existing schedule, or ask for makeup parenting time. You can also ask for changes in how the children are transported and exchanged, for the other party to pay you back for court fees and costs or expenses related to denied parenting time, or to pay to the court a civil penalty of up to $500.
  • Change of Custody: If the court finds the other parent has denied or interfered with your court-ordered parenting time, this may be a basis to ask for custody to be changed.  We strongly encourage you to talk to a lawyer about your situation.
  • Contempt: “Contempt of Court” is a decision by a judge that someone has disobeyed a court order they knew existed and they did so without a good reason. The purpose of a contempt action is to get someone to follow the court order. NOTE: These forms can be used in any family court case even though the title of the packet includes “Divorce Decree.”

The other parent isn’t paying child support. Can I deny them parenting time?

You cannot deny the other parent their court-ordered parenting time with the child(ren) just because they are not paying child support. There are several legal options to enforce a child support order. For more information, please see the Child Support Help Topic.

How old does my child have to be before the court will listen to their wishes about where they want to live?

Under MN law, the child’s preference is one of the factors the court will consider when deciding custody, but it is not the only factor. There is not a specific age listed in the law, so it is up to the judge to decide whether the child(ren) is old enough and mature enough to make a choice. See Minn. Stat. § 518.17 for the full list of factors the judge must consider.

What if the other parent and I agree about custody and parenting time?

There are different options depending on when you and the other parent reach an agreement about custody and parenting time. Unmarried parents who have signed and filed a Recognition of Parentage (ROP) form with the MN Department of Health and do not already have an existing child case can sign a Joint Petition for Establishing Custody, Parenting Time, and Child Support.
 
If you have a different situation, you may be able to file a “Stipulation and Order” if both parents agree on how you would like to establish or change custody. The MN Judicial Branch does NOT publish Stipulation forms. You might find sample forms at your local law library or you could talk to a lawyer. You could also contact a Self-Help Center.

There was domestic abuse in my relationship with the other parent. How does that impact custody?

Domestic abuse is one of the factors that the court considers when deciding custody. See Minn. Stat § 518.17 for the full list of factors. If the court finds that there was domestic abuse between the parents, the court assumes that joint legal custody or joint physical custody is not in the best interests of the child(ren). If a parent is asking for joint custody, they would have to prove why that is best for the child(ren) despite the domestic abuse. Any current protective order through a civil, criminal, or family court case may impact the parties’ ability to participate in Alternative Dispute Resolution processes.

What is supervised parenting time?

When one party has concerns about the safety of a child(ren) in the other party’s care, they can ask that the other party’s time with the child(ren) be supervised. The judge can order supervised parenting time if they find that unsupervised parenting time would be dangerous for the child(ren)’s physical or emotional health or development. The supervision may be done by a friend or family member or by a professional supervisor, depending on what the judge orders. There are costs for professionally supervised parenting time at a center, and the court order will decide who should pay these costs. In some situations, the parent who has custody may be ordered to supervise.

Where do I file for custody?

Generally, in order to have your child custody issues decided by a judge in MN, the child(ren) must have lived in MN with a parent or a person acting as a parent for at least six (6) consecutive months (180 days) before starting the court process. There are exceptions for emergency situations. MN law says you can file for custody where the child(ren) is a permanent resident, where the child(ren) is found, or where an earlier order for custody has been entered.
 
If only one parent lives in MN, read the law on interstate custody. You should talk with a lawyer if you are not sure where to file your custody case or change an existing custody order.

I was ordered to do parent education. What is it and how can I find out more about it?

When parents dispute custody or parenting time in court, the law requires that the parents attend a parenting education class. Depending on the circumstances, the judge may also order that the children attend a class. For more information, visit the Parent Education Help Topic.

What forms do I use to ask for custody if I was never married to the other parent?

If you were not married to the other parent when the child was born AND both parents have signed a MN Recognition of Parentage (ROP), you can use the forms found in the Request to Establish Custody and Parenting Time packet.

If unmarried parents did not sign a ROP form when a child was born, you can only get a custody order after the court establishes paternity to determine the child's legal father. Visit the Paternity Help Topic for more information. 

How much does it cost to file for custody?

It depends in part on what you are filing. It costs money to handle custody disputes in court. There are court filing fees, as well as possible attorney’s fees, costs for mediation or evaluation, etc. Court fees vary by county. If you have a low income, receive public assistance, or otherwise cannot afford the filing fees, you may qualify for a fee waiver. Visit the Fee Waiver Help Topic for more information.
The forms that you use for custody and parenting time depend on different factors, including whether or not you already have a court order for custody.  Review the information below and  carefully read the instructions for each packet of forms which explain when the forms should be used, how to fill out the forms, and what to do with them when completed.
 
If you need help with the forms or filing, contact a Self-Help Center
 
Ask for Custody & Parenting Time (no order exists)
The form packets listed below can only be used in cases where the child(ren)'s parents are not married to each other. Also, both parents must have signed a MN Recognition of Parentage (ROP), or there must be a current paternity order establishing the legal father.
  NOTE: Temporary custody or parenting time can be granted when a parent gets an Order for Protection from domestic abuse. Married parents can only get an order for custody or parenting time through cases involving divorce or legal separation.

Change Custody & Parenting Time (order exists)
The form packets listed below can be used to ask the court to change an existing custody or parenting time order; enforce a parenting time order; OR assign a parenting time "expeditor" to help with ongoing parenting time problems.
  Ask for Custody of Someone Else's Child (Third Party Custody)
The form packets listed below can be used to ask the court for custody of someone else's child or to respond to someone else’s request for third party custody.    
  Emergency Custody or Parenting Time Issue
The MN Judicial Branch does NOT publish forms to ask the court for an emergency ex parte order. You might find sample forms at your local law library, but you are strongly encouraged  to talk to a lawyer about your situation.
The following is a list of some of the laws and rules that relate to child custody and parenting time cases. You are encouraged to talk to a lawyer to get advice on how the laws and rules may affect your case. See Laws, Rules & Legal Research for more information. You can get more help with legal research at law libraries in MN.
 
Resources on Child Custody and Parenting TimeResources on Child Custody and Parenting Time