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Understanding Child Custody in California

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In today’s world, most of us have been impacted by a divorce in some way or another. Perhaps you are a child of divorce, or your close friends have been through a divorce. Or, perhaps a few of your family members have obtained a divorce once or twice.

What if this is your first divorce? If you have children, one of your top priorities in the divorce will center on child custody. Who will get the children? Will you share custody, or will one of you get the children most of the time?

Is domestic violence a factor? If so, how will that impact the child custody arrangement?

Two Types of Custody in California

In California, child custody is broken down into two categories: legal and physical. The courts operate on the presumption that it’s best for parents to share legal and physical custody whenever practical, in the absence of spousal abuse or child abuse.

Ideally, divorcing parents will reach an agreement on child custody and visitation with the help of their respective divorce attorneys. In that case, they would memorialize their agreement in a “parenting plan.”

If the parents are unable to reach a child custody agreement, a judge will have to decide for them. In effect, the judge would do his or her best to make a decision that is in the child’s best interests.

Legal Custody Defined

“Legal custody” refers to making decisions for the child. Such decisions center on education, medical treatment, religious upbringing, extracurricular activities, etc.

When the parents have “joint legal custody,” it means that both parents share in the responsibility of making important decisions about their child’s health, education, and general welfare. In California, it is common for courts to order joint legal custody, unless one parent is unfit.

If one parent is deemed unfit, the other parent will have “sole legal custody.”

Physical Custody Defined

“Physical custody” refers to where a child lives after their parents have separated or divorced. Physical custody is not to be confused with “legal custody,” as they are very different. When a parent has physical custody, they have the right to have their child in their home.

When a child lives primarily with one parent, or exclusively with them, that parent is considered to be the residential or custodial parent, and the other parent is the non-residential or non-custodial parent, the one with “visitation” rights.

In a joint physical custody arrangement, both of the parents enjoy significant periods of custody; sometimes the child spends equal amounts of time with both parents.

With a “sole physical custody” arrangement, the child lives with one parent, however, the court may order that the other parent has visitation.

In domestic violence cases, the court may order that all visits with the abusive parent be supervised, or it may determine that it’s in the child’s best interests not to see the abusive parent at all.

To learn more about child custody in a California divorce, contact our Los Angeles divorce attorneys for a free case evaluation. We’re here for you.


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