Can Difference in Parents’ Income Affect Custody?

Child custody is one of the most sensitive matters a divorce case can involve in California. Understanding the state’s custody laws and how the courts will handle custody arrangements can help you know what to expect moving forward with a divorce case as a parent. One common question from parents is whether the courts will look at each spouse’s income as a factor when determining physical or legal custody of children. While income can play a role in child custody, the courts will ultimately make a decision based on what is in the best interest of the child.

Factors Considered During a Custody Case in California

The courts never automatically grant custody to a mother or a father in a divorce case in California. Instead, a judge will carefully review several key factors to determine which custody arrangement would best suit the child’s individual needs. The courts will decide on both physical custody and legal custody according to what will be best for the child (the best interest of the child legal standard). A judge may consider many factors when making a custody decision.

  • The age of the child
  • Whether the child has special needs
  • The child’s wishes, if old enough
  • The child’s establishment at school, church and in the community
  • The child’s relationship and emotional bond with each parent
  • History of domestic violence
  • A parent’s history of substance abuse or criminal convictions
  • The ability of each parent to care for the child, including financial abilities

The ability of a parent to care for the child may come down to his or her income in some respect; however, it will not be a legal basis on which the courts will determine custody. The courts will not award custody to one parent because he or she makes more money than the other. Money may become a factor when examining related matters, however, such as whether a lack of income stems from a parent’s substance abuse problem.

Making Up for Differences in Income

If one spouse was a stay-at-home parent with little to no job experience, his or her low-income level will not interfere with that parent’s odds of obtaining custody. Rather than assuming a parent cannot take care of a child because of low income, the courts may instead award child support, so the custodial parent will have enough to fulfill the child’s needs. Child support is a financial award one spouse (generally the noncustodial spouse) may have to pay the other to help make up the costs of childcare. The court’s goal in awarding child support is to keep the child’s quality of living the same as it was before the divorce.

Rather than overlooking a disparity in income, the courts will try to accommodate the parent they believe is the best option for primary custody with a child support award. Child support can enable a lower-earning parent to afford to care for a child in his or her primary custody. Spousal maintenance could also help balance two spouses’ income levels. If the parent’s lack of income makes it impossible for that parent to provide a safe, stable living environment for a child, however, this could change the court’s custody decision. A parent must be able to provide a safe living environment before the courts will award custody.

If you worry about a difference in income leading to losing custody of your child during a divorce case, hire an attorney for assistance. A lawyer in San Diego who specializes in divorce can improve your odds of obtaining partial or full custody of your child by presenting your case in as positive a light as possible to the divorce courts. Your lawyer can petition the courts for both a child support and spousal maintenance award to close the gap between your income and that of your spouse. An attorney may be able to help you get the custody case results you desire during a divorce case.