Understanding the routes to different child custody situations in California

Divorcing parents in California control their own future when deciding child custody arrangements. That is if they are amicable and can come to an agreement.

The most important issue to divorcing parents is their children. Among the questions divorcing parents must answer regarding their children are who the children will stay with, who will make decisions concerning life and the everyday, and how will those decisions be reached. Fortunately for parents in California the answers to those questions can be in their own hands.

In California, divorcing parents can form their own agreements on child custody and visitation. If an agreement by both parents is reached, a judge will still need to approve the child custody arrangement, and if both parents already agree, the judge will likely approve. If parents cannot initially agree, a judge may assign a mediator to facilitate agreement. If agreement is not reached with the help of a mediator, the parents will meet in conference with a judge. This meeting is called a Judicial Custody Conference. If an agreement is not reached through the JCC, the parents will go through a longer process where the judge will ultimately decide custody and any visitation schedule. The more the parents agree, the less the court is involved.

Types of custody

However the custody order is reached, the order will address two types of custody: legal and physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make life decisions regarding the child, such as decisions on education, healthcare and religion. Physical custody refers to which parent will care for the child on an everyday basis. There are joint and sole forms of legal and physical custody, meaning ultimately that both parents are or only one parent can be responsible for the life decisions and everyday care of the child. In joint legal custody both parents have equal rights to life decisions of the child, and joint physical custody is when both parents have significant and frequent contact with the child. It does not always mean that the child spends half the time with one parent and half the time with the other. Sole legal custody is when one parent has the right to make life decisions regarding the child without consulting the other parent, and in sole physical custody only one parent has the right to care for the child on an everyday basis. The non-custodial parent may have a visitation right.

How custody is established by the court

If parents cannot reach agreement, the judge will decide the custody arrangement in the custody order. California no longer automatically gives custody to the mother over the father, and there is no preference for joint custody. The judge bases his or her custody decision on the best interests of the child. To reach this conclusion the judge will look at a number of factors that include:

  • The quality of the relationship the child has with both parents, including amount of contact and nature of relationship
  • The safety, welfare and health of the child
  • Any history of abuse between the parents and the child, between parents and between parents and new significant others or cohabitants
  • Any abuse of alcohol or drugs by the parents
  • The wishes of the child if the child is of age to appreciate the decision

Contact a family law attorney

To best preserve your right to raise your child, contact an experienced family law attorney who can educate you on the best options for your family's circumstance.

Keywords: child custody, California, establish, parents