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What Happens If You Don’t Respond to Child Custody Papers?

On Behalf of | Jan 17, 2023 | Child Custody

When people receive court papers, they often feel angry or inconvenienced. Perhaps you feel like you’ve already worked out an arrangement about your child’s custody with your ex, and you don’t understand why they’re bringing a custody case.

However annoyed or inconvenienced you may feel about receiving custody court papers, do not ignore them. If you ignore these papers, a court might legally alter your relationship with your child without your input. Below, the child custody lawyers at Batson Nolan, PLC, describe what happens if you don’t respond to child custody papers.

What Are Child Custody Papers?

To understand what happens if you don’t respond to child custody papers, you must first learn the basics of a child custody case’s process. A child custody case is where a court decides on the legal and physical relationship between each parent and a shared child. Child custody typically includes two primary facets: the right to make important decisions about your child’s life and the physical time you can spend with them.

Child custody papers refer to the court documents that get filed when one parent wants the court to step in and legally establish or modify a custody arrangement. If you and your child’s other parent are married, child custody issues are addressed as an essential part of your divorce case. If you were never married to your child’s co-parent, you can file a custody case on its own.


A parent begins a child custody case by drafting and filing a petition for custody and a proposed Permanent Parenting Plan Order with the juvenile court where the child resides. Sometimes, the custody papers consist of an order of protection with an emergency custody order if the child is in immediate danger.

The parent who started the case, now called the plaintiff, must have the court papers and a summons served on the other parent, who is now the defendant (or respondent). A summons provides logistical information about the case, like:

  • The location of the court,
  • Where and when to file an answer, and
  • The date and time for a hearing, if any.

The plaintiff cannot serve the defendant directly. Typically, the local sheriff or a process server serves the papers on the defendant.


The defendant has 30 days to answer if it’s a standard custody case. If it’s an order of protection with an emergency custody order, the court will instead have an initial hearing date within 15 days of the emergency order for all parties to attend.

What Happens If You Don’t Respond to Child Custody Papers?

The consequences of not responding to child custody papers are significant. If you receive custody papers and do not submit an answer within 30 days or show up to a court hearing, a court can legally alter your relationship with your child without your input. In fact, a court will likely accept your ex’s child custody plan without you.

The plaintiff can file a motion asking the court to enter a default judgment. The court will then set a hearing date. This hearing information should also be served on the defendant.

At the default hearing date, the plaintiff must prove that they served the custody papers properly.

The court will then examine the custody case and proposed parenting plan to see if it’s in the child’s best interest. Unless there are problems with the papers, the court will likely enter a final and binding custody order and a parenting plan order without the defendant’s input.

What Can I Do After a Default Judgment?

Unfortunately, your options are limited if you don’t respond and a court enters a default custody order. However, Tennessee law provides a way for a party to undo, or vacate, a default custody order under certain limited circumstances.

A court may reopen a default judgment if the party who didn’t respond can show one of the following:

  • Fraud or mistake,
  • The court didn’t have jurisdiction, or
  • Newly discovered evidence.

Mistake, otherwise known as excusable neglect, is one of the more commonly used methods to try to overturn a default custody order. Generally, you must prove to the court that you had a good reason for not answering promptly (e.g., sickness, travel, or your lawyer made a mistake) and that you have a defense to the case that is likely to win at trial.

Overturning a default judgment in a custody case is very complex. It requires an understanding of the nuances of Tennessee law, specifically, how courts decided similar cases. Plus, you must act quickly. You should consult an experienced Tennessee family law attorney immediately to see if you’re potentially eligible for a motion to vacate a default judgment.

Consult Our Family Attorneys for Your Custody Case or Default Judgment

A child custody case is nothing to ignore, as the consequences can be significant. However, we understand that dealing with a conflict involving your child can be overwhelming and stressful. That’s why the experienced family lawyers at Batson Nolan PLC are here. We have extensive experience fighting for our clients in Tennessee and Kentucky child custody cases. Our firm is client-centered, meaning that your needs and concerns steer our legal strategy. Contact us today.