Juvenile vs. Circuit Court: Where Should I File for Support?

Patricia TichenorLegal

Child support payments. Documents in a court.

If you’re preparing to represent yourself in a family law matter, you may have noticed in your research that Virginia has two court systems: the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts (J&DR Court) and the Circuit Courts. The J&DR Court is a “district court” which is the lowest court in Virginia.  Above the district courts sits Virginia’s Circuit Courts.

Each of these Courts operates a bit differently, especially when it comes to cases like divorce and child/spousal support.

Typically, Virginia couples seeking a divorce will file in their local Circuit Court after meeting the Commonwealth’s separation requirements. However, you may be in need of child or spousal support during your separation period, before you are eligible to file for divorce. In this case, you may be able to obtain an interim or final support order by pursuing your case with a J&DR Court.

Depending on your needs, you may be wondering whether J&DR Court or Circuit Court is the best place to file your child or spousal support case. Below, we explain the difference between the two courts, the pros and cons of each, and how to choose the right one.

Juvenile Court vs. Circuit Court: What’s the difference?

In terms of family law matters, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts of Virginia handle issues such as custody, support, and visitation (as well as many other matters, such as registering a family law court order from another state, emancipation, family abuse and protective orders, juvenile criminal cases, and criminal cases where the plaintiff and defendant are family/household members).

Custody, visitation, child support, and spousal support are each treated as entirely separate cases and given separate case numbers in the J&DR Court.  None of these are connected to divorce cases, because the J&DR Court cannot grant a divorce.

Virginia’s Circuit Courts, on the other hand, has the sole authority (sometimes referred to as “jurisdiction”) to grant divorces, and, if you are eligible to file for a divorce, then your divorce complaint can also be used to address – under a single case number – matters of custody, visitation, child support, and spousal support, in conjunction with a couple’s divorce. This Court also hears appeals from the J&DR Court if a parent is unhappy with the outcome of his or her case heard in the J&DR Court.

One important thing to note is that if your custody, visitation, child support, or spousal support was determined in a divorce proceeding in a Virginia Circuit Court, you must file any new petitions (e.g. modifications) in that Circuit Court unless you first transfer the jurisdiction to your county’s J&DR Court. Therefore, it’s important to be sure of where you need to file before you submit any paperwork to the courts in Virginia.

A note about J&DR Court’s Court Services Unit

Virginia’s J&DR Courts have historically been considered “DIY-friendly” and often have a separate Court Services Unit, where you can schedule an appointment to meet with someone for free to help you fill out the standard court forms (which are pre-printed, check the box templates) when seeking to establish child support and/or spousal support. 

While the fact that these Court Services Units are free is very attractive, the people working there are not attorneys, are not permitted to give you legal advice, and do not provide any ongoing assistance after filling out your forms with you and filing them.

In addition, you cannot tell your story to the Court using a fill-in-the-blank or check-the-box forms the way you can if you are shown how to draft a real petition for yourself, as My Legal Case Coach does.  This is what attorneys call a “pleading,” and it is sometimes very critical that you file a pleading that details your specific facts and circumstances, such as explaining the dire nature of your financial situation and why you need a temporary support order immediately for you and your children.

Should I file my support case in Juvenile Court or Circuit Court?

Filing your support case in Juvenile Court or Circuit Court depends on a few different factors, including your current marital status. Here are a few considerations to help you decide where to file your case:

You should file in J&DR Court if…

  • You were never married to your child’s other parent OR you are married but have not yet met Virginia’s separation requirements for a no-fault divorce.
  • You have a relatively simple case and feel comfortable using the J&DR Court’s pre-printed checkbox forms.
  • You want to treat each of your family law matters (child support, spousal support, child custody, and child visitation) as separate cases.

You should file in Circuit Court if…

  • You are eligible to file for divorce right now or have already begun divorce proceedings in Circuit Court.
  • You have a complicated set of circumstances and wish to draft custom case documents, rather than using the pre-printed forms from the J&DR Court.
  • You wish to have all your family law matters organized under a single case number.

Keep in mind that both Courts will allow a spouse to file an emergency support Petition if circumstances warrant it.

Get 1-to-1 DIY legal coaching from a licensed Virginia attorney

If you’re unsure whether you should file for child/spousal support in Juvenile Court or Circuit Court, or if you simply need help with your DIY legal case, schedule a free, 15-minute consultation call with My Legal Case Coach.

During your call, you’ll speak with a licensed Virginia attorney who can point you to the appropriate case form packet for your needs. We can also help you determine whether your case would be deemed an emergency by the Court, and if so, assist you in completing an Emergency Pleading (sometimes titled as a Motion, Petition or Complaint, but all designed to seek the same emergency relief).

Whether you purchase our J&DR Court or Circuit Court forms packet, you’ll receive one free hour of coaching to ensure you feel confident and prepared to present your case to the judge.