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Child Custody, Visitation & Support Frequently Asked Questions

How is Child Custody Decided in California?

In California, courts are willing to allow parents to reach their own agreements as to child custody in almost all circumstances. Of course, parents are sometimes not able to reach agreement, in which case the court must decide.

California child custody law is guided by the principles that children benefit from regular, frequent, and ongoing contact with both parents, and that the court's primary concern should be the health, welfare, and safety of children.  California law specifically states that neither parent should be given a preference in custody considerations based on their sex. Both parents are presumed at the outset of the custody determination to have equal rights to custody. 

Within this framework, courts in San Diego and other California counties must take into account all circumstances of each case, and may consider any relevant information. Factors which may be considered include whether either parent has a history of substance abuse or of committing domestic violence or child abuse; which parent is more likely to encourage a positive relationship between the child and the other parent; the child's preference if the child is mature enough to express a preference; and the stability of a proposed living environment. 

What Does Legal and Physical Custody Mean?

In a California child custody case, "legal custody" refers to which parent has the right to make major life decisions for a child, such as decisions about medical treatment, religious upbringing, and education. Courts in San Diego County and other California counties generally favor joint custody arrangements, which means both parents share in these decision making rights and responsibilities. This does not mean that you must reach agreement with your child's other parent on every single decision, but you should attempt to reach a consensus regarding major decisions. Bear in mind that good communication makes co-parenting much easier, not just on you, but on your child. Communicating in advance also reduces the likelihood that you and your child's other parent will end up in court arguing about the decision.

"Physical custody" simply refers to the parent with whom a child physically resides. Like legal custody, joint physical custody may be agreed to by parents or ordered by California courts in divorce or custody matters. With joint physical custody, your child spends an approximately equal amount of time at your home and the home of the other parent.  This allows regular, frequent, and ongoing contact with both parents, which California courts encourage. Joint physical custody does not mean that both parents have exactly equal parenting time with the child. Oftentimes, children will reside primarily in one parent's home and have a visitation schedule with the other parent that is consistent.

Under some circumstances, a parent will be ordered to have only "supervised" contact with their child or children.  This means that the parent must have another person present during the time they spend with their child or children due to possible issues of physical or verbal abuse.  

When circumstances change, either parent can seek modification of the parenting orders and the Court will consider whether those circumstances warrant a change in the current orders.

San Diego Bar AssociationSection of Family LawCalifornia State Bar Family Law American Bar Association Avvo Clients' Choice 2014