Child custody in California is determined through the courts. In any given custody battle, either party can utilize several legal options to find an amicable solution or argue for custody. In any case, the final judgment is always handed out by a judge – although most judges will generally agree to anything the parents have mutually agreed to, if it is deemed fair in the eyes of the law. Knowing what types of custody exist in California, what your visitation rights might be, what factors are the most important in custody cases, and what legal options you might have throughout your custody battle can give you a distinct advantage.
Your Legal Options for Child Custody
If you want to fight for your right to be involved in your child’s life, you need to understand the general layers of a custody battle. Your legal options begin with an amicable resolution via an agreed upon parenting plan. Parenting plans are detailed documents laying out the terms for joint custody, or sole custody with visitation rights.
A parenting plan can divide physical custody and legal responsibilities, i.e. giving one parent control over a child’s education, and the other control over their healthcare. If this doesn’t work out, then a court-appointed mediator may step in for custody mediation. In these cases, a third-party mediator is assigned to evaluate both parents, and utilize their trained conflict resolution skillset to help them come to an amicable solution.
Alternative mediation strategies include an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), or the involvement of both parties’ lawyers through a family law collaboration. ADR is an informal negotiation that may take place later during the custody battle, should both parents agree to try and resolve custody together before resorting to litigation. In a family law collaboration, both parties mediate custody through their attorneys, whose primary goal is to find a mutual resolution.
Finally, should all other options fail, the custody case resorts to either party arguing for sole custody through litigation. In this case, a court-appointed evaluator may interview both parents, as well as the children, to learn more about how suitable either party is a parent, how strong the bond is between parent and child, and how involved either parent is in the life of their child. As mentioned before, in all cases, it is the judge who signs off on the final decision.
Types of Child Custody in California
California has two distinct types of custody, and two further subtypes. A parent can have either legal or physical custody of a child, and they can have either joint or sole custody. This means they can have sole physical custody, joint physical custody, sole legal custody, and/or joint legal custody.
- Legal custody is defined as being able to make decisions regarding the child’s care and upbringing, as well as their education and healthcare. A parent with sole legal custody is the parent who effectively holds the responsibility to make decisions on behalf of their child. A parent with joint legal custody shares that responsibility with the other parent.
- Physical custody is described as the right to have a child live under the same roof. In most cases, when a parent has sole physical custody of their child, the other parent will have certain visitation rights. However, parents can also share joint physical custody. In these cases, both parties must agree on when and where their children or child will stay. These negotiations do not always result in equal time being spent with both parents.
In California, as well as all other states and jurisdictions in the country, neither male nor female parent has a distinct advantage when it comes to custody. Courts do not decide whom to award custody on the basis of gender. Most of the time, these decisions boil down to which parent is the primary caregiver.
The definition of a primary caregiver in custody law is the parent who is most involved in their child’s life who:
- Takes them to school.
- Prepares meals and playdates.
- Attends parent-teacher conferences.
- Knows their child’s interests and hobbies.
- Arranges and brings them to doctor’s appointments.
In most cases (certainly not all), this tends to be the mother. However, even when custody is awarded to the mother, the father still has the right to fight for visitation rights – or appeal a judge’s decision and seek joint custody.
Factors That Determine Child Custody in California
The primary factors that determine child custody in California are:
- Parenting skills.
- Involvement in the child’s life.
- Either parent’s stability (emotionally and mentally).
- The child’s preferences and desires (at a certain age).
- Potential criminal history/other risk factors for the child.
At the end of the day, the courts will make a decision based on what they find to be in the best interests of the child. As a father, your bond with your child is just as valuable and meaningful as the bond between a child and their mother – the determining factor in cases where an amicable solution isn’t possible will be to what lengths either parent is prepared to go to prioritize their children, and to what degree they’re already involved in their child’s life.
Furthermore, parents who have no interest in moving away after the divorce – uprooting their child and bringing them into a foreign environment – may have a better hand to play. A judge will make their decision based largely on the factors listed above, although most judges prefer it when parents come to a decision themselves. There are exceptions to every rule – and cases where certain factors partially or completely rule out custody for a parent, such as neglect or abuse, substance use, or a mental disorder that may endanger the child in any way.
If you want to learn more about California family law, and explore your options further, do not hesitate to contact a legal professional. Every custody case is different, with its own set of circumstances. It is important to talk with an attorney about the big picture before receiving any legal advice.