How Does California Determine Child Custody?

Child custody is often the aspect of divorce that parents are most concerned about. How the courts assign parenting time to you and/or your ex-spouse can have a major impact on your family’s future. The first step in making it through a custody case is understanding how California determines child custody during the divorce process. 

Types of Child Custody and Parenting Time

There are several types of child custody agreements in California. First, there is legal custody vs. physical custody. Legal custody refers to the right of a parent to make important decisions for the child, such as regarding religion, education and health care. Physical custody is the right of a parent to have the child under his or her roof.

Next, there is joint vs. sole custody. Joint or shared custody means that both parents are given custodial rights over the child in a divorce. This can refer to shared legal custody, physical custody or both. Joint custody does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split. One parent could receive physical custody 75 percent of the time while the other parent has 25 percent, or various other arrangements.

Finally, there is visitation. Visitation rights may be given to one parent if the other is given sole custody of a child, but the courts believe it is in the child’s best interests to stay in contact with both parents. Visitation means that a parent has the right to visit with the child at designated times and places. Visitation may be supervised or unsupervised, depending on the circumstances.

Which Type is Most Common?

The courts believe that remaining in continuing and meaningful contact with both parents is what is best for a child after a divorce. For this reason, joint custody arrangements are generally more common than sole custody. However, if the courts believe that being around one parent could potentially harm the child’s well-being, they may award sole custody to the other parent.

What Factors Are Used to Determine Child Custody?

In California, two parents have the right to create their own custody arrangement and parenting plan in a divorce case before the courts intervene. If the couple can come to a compromise that works for everyone, a judge will typically sign off on their parenting plan as long as it protects the child’s interests, safety and well-being. If the couple cannot come to an agreement, however, the custody case will have to go to court.

The courts in California base child custody decisions on numerous factors, including:

  • The strength of the relationship between each parent and the child.
  • The emotional ties between each parent and the child.
  • The physical and mental capacity of the parent to care for the child.
  • The health and medical needs of the child.
  • The age of the child and dependence on either parent.
  • Any parental history of domestic violence, abuse or neglect.
  • The child’s connections to his or her home, school and community.
  • The child’s wishes, if the child is old enough and mature enough.

The courts in California do not automatically favor one parent over the other during a custody case. Instead, all relevant factors are carefully analyzed to determine what custody arrangement will most protect the child’s best interests. The child’s health, safety, welfare and happiness are always the court’s top priorities. 

Can You Modify a Child Custody Agreement in California?

Once a child custody agreement has been finalized, both parents must obey the court order. One parent cannot refuse to let the other see his or her child during court-ordered custody or visitation for any reason. It is possible to petition the courts for a child custody modification, however, if your situation substantially changes. 

If you suspect your ex-spouse of violence or substance abuse, for example, you can petition the courts for an emergency order or custody modification to protect your child. For more information about child custody determinations in California or assistance modifying an order after a divorce, contact a child custody attorney near you.