When you find yourself involved in a child custody case, it’s important to understand which laws apply to you and how they affect you. Laws regarding child custody and visitation vary from state to state, so the laws that apply in Washington, for example, are different from the laws that apply in California. While child custody laws may be similar in some states, small differences in language can have a big impact on your actual situation. Take a look at some of the things that you need to know about child custody and visitation rights laws in California, and what you need to know about asserting your rights as a parent in a California family court.
The Status Quo
“Status quo” means something like “the present state of affairs” and it’s an important phrase when it comes to child custody in California. Family courts recognize that children need stability and consistency in their living arrangements and schedules, and because of this, they often hesitate to make drastic changes to an arrangement that seems to be working for the children involved, even if there’s no reason to believe that another arrangement wouldn’t work just as well.
This is why some experts advise parents to file for some type of temporary custody arrangement as soon as any separation occurs rather than waiting for the divorce process to proceed. By the time you’re hashing out custody and visitation matters during a divorce proceeding, some type of living and visiting arrangement will have been established, and a family court judge may be reluctant to change it.
However, while consistency and stability are important concerns, you’re not stuck with an existing arrangement just because it’s there. Moving out of the family home and leaving your children with the other parent is not meant to be held against you in many cases. For example, short absences during which you maintain contact with your children and demonstrate an interest in maintaining custody or visitation are not supposed to be considered during custody and visitation cases. Parents who leave the home due to actual or threatened domestic violence are also not penalized for this, and the law also says that military parents who are deployed can’t lose their joint custody or visitation simply because they were absent from the family for military service.
Generally, noncustodial parents who want to change the status quo will need to be prepared to explain to the court why the current arrangement is not in their child’s best interests and why the proposed change will be more in line with what their child needs.
No matter which parent the child resides with or what the parenting time split is, California law acknowledges that a continuing relationship with both parents is in a child’s best interests. Therefore, the court encourages parents to work together to find a way to meet their child’s needs, even if they aren’t in a relationship with each other.
This means that when divorced or separated parents are in agreement with each other, the court will usually approve whatever co-parenting arrangement works best for them. But when parents can’t agree and cooperate with each other, the court will make custody and visitation decisions – and once those decisions are made, changes can be tough to achieve without getting both parents on board.
When one parent is willing to communicate and co-parent but the other is resistant, California courts are inclined to look less favorably on the resistant parent. So it is not only your child’s best interest but also in your best interest to try to co-parent peacefully. When co-parenting is impossible, parents may want to consider “parallel parenting” – a method of parenting where each parent has clearly defined rights and responsibilities, and they handle them with minimal contact or engagement with the other parent.
In recent years, the preference of a child has become a much more important factor in deciding child custody cases. This is related to the passage of California Family Code 3042, which directs family courts to give weight to the wishes of the child and states that children 14 years or older should be permitted to address the court about their wishes if they choose to do so. Children under 14 years are not prohibited from addressing the court, but the family court may decide that it is against their best interests to do so.
However, while California requires courts to listen to children and give weight to their preferences, the court still has discretion and does not necessarily have to follow the child’s wishes or to follow them in exactly the way the child requests. The court will also have to consider whether a parent’s conditioning or efforts to alienate the child from the other parent played a role in the child’s request.
If your child expresses a desire to state a preference about the custody arrangement in court, you’ll need to file a formal request with the court for them to be heard. You’ll need to find a balance between allowing and encouraging them to have their say without exerting any pressure or undue influence over them. It’s important for children to feel that they’re being heard, especially about matters that concern them as intimately as a custody arrangement. But since both parents also have a personal stake in the outcome of a custody case, it can be easy for parents to cross a line with their influence. Your best bet is to take care not to speak negatively about your child’s other parent in front of them, as this can be perceived as alienation. Be positive about their relationship with their other parent if you can, and if you can’t be positive, at least be neutral. Don’t prevent your child from contacting their other parent during your parenting time, and avoid any appearance of interfering with the other parent’s parenting time.
Custody hearings can seem complicated, but most parents can advocate for their child and assert their own parental rights successfully in family court and come to an arrangement that works for their child. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you get the resources you need to represent yourself in a California family court.