Juvenile Court v. Circuit Court: Where Do I File?

Posted on Nov 16, 2022 by Katie Carter

Knowing which court does what and where to file your petitions is anything but easy, especially in family law. Our cases are handled both in the juvenile courts AND the circuit courts, and there can be some interplay between the two, depending on the specifics of each case.

Let’s talk about it.

What petitions do I file in juvenile court?

The ‘juvenile court,’ or the ‘Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court’ is where custody, visitation, child support, and spousal support petitions can be filed.

These petitions can be filed together, but they’re not part of a larger divorce action. That doesn’t mean that only unmarried people can file in juvenile court, though. For a lot of different reasons, you might choose to stay married but file for spousal support – in that instance, often referred to as ‘separate maintenance’ – or even custody, visitation, and/or child support, though that happens less often.

Generally speaking, the court will not adjudicate custody, visitation, or child support while you’re living under the same roof.

The first time you go to juvenile court to determine custody, visitation, and/or child support, it’s an initial determination. That just means that you don’t have a prior order or agreement regarding custody, visitation, and/or child support. It’s your first time in court.

Juvenile court, though, also handles modification cases – so, if you DO have a previous court order or agreement, but a material change in circumstances has occurred that means that a change of custody (or visitation or child support, or all of the above) is in the child’s best interests. You can file petitions again, and the court can hear and modify the current order or agreement.

What petitions do I file in circuit court?

If a divorce is filed, that will be heard in circuit court.

If you had already filed – or your child’s father had already filed – petitions in the juvenile court, the juvenile court will be ‘divested’ of jurisdiction, and the case will be handed up to the circuit court.

Under the umbrella of a divorce case, the circuit court can handle it all, from the division of property, to a determination of child and spousal support, as well as custody and visitation. Then, when the case is done, the final decree will usually include language remanding (basically, handing down) any modifications of custody, visitation, or child support to the juvenile court.

Circuit court might also be the site where your appeal from juvenile court is heard. If you’re filing for custody, visitation, child support, or spousal support (or separate maintenance) in the juvenile court, either as an initial determination or as a modification, you’ll have a couple of hearings. The first is an initial appearance, and usually the second (barring some other motions or other unprecedented issues) is the trial.
If you don’t like the result you got at the trial, you can appeal it to the circuit court. That’s an appeal de novo, which means that it’s a brand new trial that isn’t influenced by the one you already had.

So, some cases you can be clearly in either juvenile court or circuit court. In others, you might file in one place and then find yourself in another. Procedurally, it can be difficult to understand, especially if you’re dealing with an unexpected divestiture or appeal. But, whether you like it or not, it’s all part of the process, which is ultimately designed to help make sure that litigants get a fair shot.

In general, it’s a good idea to meet one on one with an attorney about your case – or your prospective case – to get an idea of what, strategically, might be in your best interests. Maybe, if you can’t afford an attorney to represent you at both the juvenile court level and then for an appeal in circuit court, you come up with a plan to represent yourself (pro se, is what we call that) at the juvenile court level and then hire an attorney for the circuit court matter.

Keep in mind, too, that compromise is always an option. Just because petitions have been filed doesn’t mean that you have to go all the way through with a trial. You can always negotiate an agreement that keeps your case out of court, sometimes even on the courthouse steps (that’s sort of a euphemism; not necessarily on the courthouse steps, but on the eve of trial) moments before you step into the courtroom for your trial. In fact, most cases are settled before trial.

For more information, to request a copy of one of our divorce or custody books, or for more information about what to expect in a consultation, visit our website at hoflaw.com or give us a call at 757-425-5200.