When parents divorce or break up, determining who gets what type of custody can be difficult. Sometimes, parents can come to an agreement between the two of them about how to split custody, but in other cases, they can’t agree and the courts have to step in. Different states have different laws and different family court requirements, so if you’re going to be involved in a custody case, it’s important to know what to watch out for in your state. Take a look at what you need to know about child custody in California.
Who Has the Better Claim?
In California, judges aren’t allowed to show a preference for either parent based solely on their gender. That means that in the case of opposite-sex couples, both parents start out with an equal claim to custody.
Under California law, two guiding principles that judges should use to guide custody hearings include:
- The welfare, health, and safety of the child is the primary concern, and
- Children benefit from an ongoing relationship with both parents
This means that as long as both parents are fit parents who can keep their child safe and healthy, they should both end up with a custody arrangement that allows them to have a relationship with their child. You probably shouldn’t expect to end up with sole custody unless your child’s other parent is somehow unfit or a danger to your child. As long as your child’s other parent is a fit parent, your focus should be on establishing a fair custody arrangement that allows your child plenty of time with both parents, not on taking your child away from their other parent.
What About the Child’s Wishes?
Children, particularly older children and teenagers, may have strong opinions about which parent they want to live with and how much visitation they want. Children crave consistency and routine, which means they often want to avoid moving, changing schools, or leaving neighborhoods where their friends live. They may also have feelings about which parent they prefer to come home to at the end of the day. But should children’s wishes carry any weight when determining custody?
California law says yes, a child’s preference should be taken into consideration if the child is old enough and mature enough to make those kinds of choices. What age is old enough? The law doesn’t specify an age, perhaps because children develop and mature at different rates, and some can make rational decisions at younger ages than others. However, the older a child is, the more weight their preference is likely to be given.
Apart from the legal aspects of child custody, it’s important for parents to hear out their children’s opinions and concerns. Keep in mind that while the divorce may have been about your relationship with your ex, custody is about your relationship with your kids, and they have a right to their feelings and opinions. It’s normal for children to have a whole range of feelings about their parents’ divorce and about any changes to their living situation and routine, and it’s only fair to listen to what they have to say and take their feelings into account.
Many experts recognize a child’s need for a stable home environment, and courts will take this into account as well. Judges may try to avoid custody arrangements that result in less stability in the child’s life. That means that between a parent who travels or moves frequently for work and a parent who stays in one place the majority of the time, the judge may prefer to give physical custody to the parent who remains in the same place.
That doesn’t mean that a parent who is frequently traveling or moving is a bad parent, just that they might not be the parent who can provide the most consistency for the child. They may share legal custody of the child – in other words, the ability to make decisions about important matters like education and medical treatment – and they may be granted extensive visitation rights as well. Every case is different, and frequent changes in living arrangements or interruptions in routine don’t necessarily mean that a parent can’t be granted physical custody, but it’s worth keeping in mind that a family court will look more favorably on a parent who can provide a stable home and routine.
The Importance of Co-Parenting
Because children’s outcomes are better when both parents are involved, co-parenting is an important skill that divorced or separated parents need to develop, and a family court in California will be looking for your ability and willingness to co-parent.
No matter how you feel about your ex, it’s in your best interest to be proactive about working together to co-parent your child. You’ll need to be willing to compromise and meet the other parent halfway, not just for the sake of the court’s opinion, but for the sake of your child and for your own peace of mind. Parenting is a lifelong obligation, and you don’t want to spend the rest of your life fighting with your ex over every little thing.
Family courts tend to take a dim view of parents who make unfounded allegations against the other parent, or who actively try to turn their children against the other parent. These kinds of actions can backfire, resulting in your access to your child being restricted, rather than the other parent’s access. That means that your best bet is to save your negative comments about your ex for times when your children aren’t around, and you should definitely not claim that your ex is abusive or dangerous to your child unless you actually have reason to believe that it’s true.
Ultimately, the family court’s guiding principles – the health, safety, and welfare of the child and an ongoing relationship with both parents – should also be your guiding principles. It’s easy to think about custody in terms of your rights as a parent, but if you approach a custody case with the intention of finding an arrangement that is best and healthiest for your child, it becomes easier to think about sharing custody and co-parenting with your ex.