The state of California recognizes the importance of having two parents involved in the raising of a child. However, fathers often feel that they’re at a disadvantage in family court. Sometimes this feeling comes from bad information or just incorrect assumptions about how child custody and visitation work, but you should never assume that you just don’t have as many rights as your child’s other parent and therefore not try to establish a fair custody and visitation arrangement. Take a look at what you need to know about your rights as a father in California.
Alleged Parents, Presumed Parents, and Biological Fathers
In California law, parents other than the biological mother may be referred to as alleged parents, presumed parents, and biological fathers. These terms mean different things and come with different rights.
You’re an alleged parent if the biological mother of your child has told the court or a social worker that you’re the father of the child, or if you show up at the first custody hearing and claim that you’re the biological father of the child. Alleged parents have the right to be notified of family court hearings and the right to prove that you’re a presumed or biological parent of the child. Alleged parents don’t have the right to custody. But don’t panic if you have court papers that refer to you as an alleged parent – it just means that you have to take the steps to show that you’re the presumed or biological parent.
A biological father is someone who has had a DNA test proving that they’re the biological father of the child in question. Biological fathers do have the right to parent their children and make decisions regarding their children, absent any factors that would make them unfit parents.
A presumed parent is someone whose name is listed on the birth certificate, someone who has a court order establishing a legal relationship to the child, or someone who has acted as a parent and raised the child as their own up to the current time. Presumed parent status doesn’t only apply to men – a female partner of a biological mother could also be a presumed parent, for example – but if you’re a man who has been supporting and raising your child, there’s a good chance that you qualify for presumed parent status, even without a DNA test. Presumed parents have custody rights as well.
If you’ve never been married to the mother of your child, you will probably need to prove that you’re a biological or presumed parent before you can be awarded sole or joint custody or visitation. But if you know you’re the biological father, if you’re listed on the birth certificate, or if you’ve been involved with the child as a parent, this should be easy to establish.
When it comes to physical custody, you can push for joint custody, where you share parenting time with the child’s other parent, or sole custody, where you have all of the parenting time. In most cases, family courts prefer some type of joint custody arrangement, because it’s best for the child to have an ongoing relationship with both parents. Unless your child’s other parent is abusive or unfit for some other reason, it’s unlikely that you’ll end up with sole custody, but very possible that you’ll end up with joint custody.
When asking for joint custody, it’s important to consider your schedule and figure out exactly how much time you can devote to parenting time. Be realistic. Often parents can’t reasonably split their parenting time exactly in half, especially when their children are very young. If your child is a toddler and one of you works full time and the other works part-time, the parent working part-time is likely to have more parenting time, regardless of the gender of that parent. However, keep in mind that custody arrangements can be – and often are – modified. As your work schedule and the other parents schedule changes over time, you may be able to work in more time. And as your children grow older it becomes easier to achieve something closer to a 50/50 split – a teenager who is old enough to look after themselves while their parent is at work and arrange their own transportation could easily spend about half the time at one parent’s house and half at the other, if both parents are local.
You should also make legal custody a priority. Legal custody has to do with making important decisions for your child. Legal custody gives you the right to weigh in on your child’s education, healthcare, religion, and other important life matters.
Legal custody can be shared between both parents. It’s very common for parents to share legal custody even if one parent has a much greater proportion of parenting time than the other. It’s important to make legal custody a priority because it gives you a voice in how your child is raised regardless of how much time you’re able to spend with them.
The Parenting Plan
With shared physical custody, you and your child’s other parent will need to work out a parenting plan – or allow the court to make one for you – that spells out how you will split your parenting time. The parenting plan covers things like which holidays the child spends with which parent and what visitation will look like.
Once a parenting plan is in place, you have the right to have the court enforce it. If your child’s other parent tries to deny or limit your visitation as spelled out in the parenting plan, you can report that to the court so that they can enforce your right to spend time with your children. If something changes with regard to your or the other parent’s ability to care for your child, you can also ask the court to modify the parenting plan.
Knowing what kind of custody and visitation time you want and how to make the request in family court can help you assert your rights as a father in California. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you prepare for court and file the correct documents to make your case in court.