Starting a Case in Family Court

The Family Court hears cases for paternity, custody, visitation, child support, spousal support, and orders of protection.

It's also the court where abuse or neglect of children cases, adoption, guardianship, juvenile delinquency, PINS (Persons In Need of Supervision), and voluntary placement of child into foster care cases are heard.

Divorce cases are heard in Supreme Court. The Family Court may make decisions on custody, visitation, child support, and spousal support matters before a divorce case is filed in Supreme Court.


Step 1. Prepare the Petition

Most Family Court cases start with a paper called a Petition. The Petition tells the court and the other side what the case is about. The person starting the case is called the Petitioner and the other side is called the Respondent.

There are DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Forms programs available for some Petitions. Other petitions are available online.

In the Petition, write down as many details as possible to explain what you are asking the court for and why.

If you would like to keep your contact information hidden (confidential) from the other side, an Address Confidentiality Affidavit must be filled out and then signed in front of a notary. Bring this to the court with the Petition.

The court might need other forms and documents with the Petition, such as photo identification, copies of the children's birth certificates, proof of income, etc. Ask the court clerk for more information.

All Family Courts have a Help Center where you can go for assistance and more information.


Step 2. File the Petition

The Petition is usually filed in the county where the child lives or where the Petitioner or Respondent lives. The papers must be given to the court. Giving legal papers to the court is called filing. Papers can be brought to and filed at Family Court, sent electronically through EDDS, or e-filed through NYSCEF. Read more about EDDS and NYSCEF.

It is free to file a case in Family Court.

When the Petition is filed, the clerk will assign the case a "docket number" and print a Summons. There may be a separate docket number for each child listed in the Petition. The Summons tells the people involved in the case where and when to appear for the court hearing in front of a judge.


Step 3. Serve the Respondent

The Respondent, the other side in the case, must get a copy of the Summons and the Petition so that they know about the case. These papers must be delivered to the other side in a certain way. The prcoess for delivering court papers is called service.

In some counties, the court will serve the papers on the Respondent. In other counties, the Petitioner must arrange for the papers to be served. Petitioners are not allowed to deliver the papers to the Respondent themselves, but must ask someone else to do it for them. You will get instructions on how to arrange service of the Summons and Petition on the Respondent.

If the Petitioner must arrange for the papers to be served, the person who served the Respondent must fill out an Affidavit of Service and then sign it in front of a notary. The Affidavit of Service is proof that the Summons and the Petition were properly delivered to the Respondent.

For Family Offense Petitions where the Petitioner is asking for an Order of Protection, the sheriff or police can assist the Petitioner serve the Respondent. Ask the court clerk for more information.

Before the date of the court hearing, it would help if you submit a copy of the Affidvit of Service and any documents that may be important in the case, such as, old court orders, photographs, police reports, receipts, bank statements, and school records. Documents can be brought or mailed to the courthouse or submitted electronically through EDDS or NYSCEF.

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