Basics of Child Custody in California

Are you a parent who is headed toward divorce? Or, are you an unmarried parent who needs to go to court to sort out a child custody issue? Either way, you’ll be interested in learning how California’s child custody laws apply to your family. To help you better understand how child custody works in the state, we’re going to shed light on the topic in this post. If you need legal assistance, we invite you to contact us directly.

In California, parents are encouraged to reach their own agreement regarding child custody. Once such an agreement is reached and the parents have created a Parenting Plan, the judge can sign off on their agreement and issue an official court order. Generally, the family courts encourage the parents to share custody, providing both parents are loving and caring, but only one parent can end up with custody as well.

While the parents are urged to come up with their own custody and visitation arrangement, the judge has the final say. Usually how it goes is the parents propose an agreement (their Parenting Plan) and the judge approves it. However, if the parents cannot agree on child custody, the judge will hold a court hearing and he or she will decide for the parents. California judges do not usually make decisions about child custody and visitation until the parents have met with a mediator from Family Court Services.

Two Types of Custody Orders

California has two types of child custody: 1) legal custody, and 2) physical custody. “Legal custody” refers to making important decisions for one’s children, such as education, healthcare, travel, residence, sports, vacation, mental health care, religious upbringing, and extracurricular activities. On the other hand, physical custody refers to who the children are living with.

Legal custody can be joint or sole. When it’s joint, it means both parents make decisions about their children. With sole legal custody, only one parent has the right to make important decisions about their children. For example, let’s say a mother had sole legal custody of her children and she wanted to join a church for the first time and bring her children with her. Since she has sole legal custody, it’s her decision to make and the father’s input will not have any bearing on what she decides to do.

When parents have joint legal custody, they both have the right to make decisions about their children’s lives and well-being. To avoid running into problems and ending back in court, parents should have open communication with each other and they should not act without the other parent’s consent. They should also willingly cooperate with each other and be respectful toward one another.

Like legal custody, physical custody can be joint or sole (primary). When physical custody is joint, it means the children spend time living with both parents. When it’s sole or primary, it usually means that the children mostly live with one parent and they visit with the other parent.

“Does joint physical custody mean the children spend 50 percent of their time with each parent?” No, not necessarily. Joint physical custody does not have to mean that the children divide their time 50/50 with both parents. Usually, this is impractical because it’s hard to split the children’s time so it’s exactly in half. When one parent has the children for more than 50 percent of the time, that parent is considered to be the “primary custodial parent.”

“Does joint legal custody always translate to joint physical custody?” Not always. Sometimes, a judge will give both parents joint legal custody but not joint physical custody. In these situations, both parents have the right and responsibility to make important decisions about the children’s upbringings, but the children live with one of the parents the majority of the time. The other parent (what some states call the non-custodial parent) usually has visits with his or her children.

Time-Sharing (Visitation) in California

Visitation in California is also called time-sharing - it refers to how parents “share” time with their kids. The parent who has the children for less than 50 percent of the time is said to have “visitation.” Visitation orders are not all the same, they vary depending on the family’s situation and the children’s best interests. Generally, there are four types of visitation:

1. Visitation that adheres to a schedule: This is where the parents have created a detailed schedule, which gives them predictability and helps them prevent scheduling conflicts. Such schedules outline when the children will be with each parent; they can also include schedules for holidays, birthdays, vacations and the like.

2. Reasonable visitation: These types of orders are more flexible and open-ended than scheduled visitation. These types of visitation plans only work well when the parents have good communication and can get along. However, if there are disagreements, these types of schedules can cause the children to suffer.

3. Supervised visitation: This type of visitation is used in cases of domestic violence and in other situations where it’s best for the children’s well-being. With supervised visitation, the other parent, another adult, or someone from an agency is present during the visits. It can also be used when the child has not seen their parent for a long time and needs time to get familiar with their mom or dad.

4. No visitation allowed: If it is in the children’s best interests NOT to see their other parent because of child abuse or a severe mental disorder, the parent may be denied visitation altogether. Meaning, even supervised visitation would be harmful for the child. This is especially applicable in cases of severe child abuse.

Related: 9 Child Custody Tips for Your Case

Do you need help with a child custody issue in Los Angeles? If so, contact Claery & Hammond, LLP to schedule a free case evaluation.