When going through a divorce in California, determining child custody is one of the most important and emotionally charged aspects. You may have to deal with the question of which parent will live with the child and which parent will be allowed to make important decisions about your child’s life. 

California courts aim to prioritize the child’s best interests when making custody decisions. It is generally believed that it is best for the child to maintain a relationship with both parents; however, the nature of a custody arrangement may become unclear and need to be settled in court. 

Parents do not always agree on a parenting plan, and it may be uncertain what the relationship between each parent and the child will be post-divorce. In such cases, the courts consider several factors to create a custody arrangement that promotes the child’s well-being. 

This article will delve into the key considerations and factors that influence how custody is determined in a divorce in California. These key considerations include the types of custody arrangements and how judges come to determinations when parents disagree on child custody. 

While this article is meant to serve as a general guide, be sure to consult with a family and divorce lawyer if you are in need of legal counsel regarding child custody.


Legal versus physical custody

There are two categories of child custody used by the state of California:

    • Legal custody – refers to which parent is given the right to make significant decisions regarding education, welfare, and health.
  • Physical custody – refers to which parent the child lives with.


Joint versus sole custody

Additionally, the judge may grant sole or joint custody of the child.

  • Joint custody – gives rights and parental responsibility to both parents.
  • Sole custody – grants rights and parental responsibility to only one parent if the court determines that it is in the child’s best interest or if one parent is deemed unfit or unable to care for the child adequately.

The joint and sole custody categories apply to legal and physical custody determinations. Additionally, in California, the courts often favor giving at least joint legal custody. The state believes it is generally in the child’s best interest to have a degree of contact with both parents. However, this is not guaranteed.

  • Joint legal custody – both parents share in decision-making on behalf of the child, even if the child primarily resides with one parent.
  • Sole legal custody – only one parent is granted the right to make important decisions for the child.
  • Joint physical custody – the child lives with both parents, sharing time between parental households and allowing for a significant and ongoing relationship with both parents.

If one parent is awarded primary physical custody, the other parent will typically be granted visitation rights or parenting time to maintain a meaningful relationship with the child.


The best interest of the child standard

California Family Code Section 3011 establishes the “best interest of the child” standard, which serves as the guiding principle in custody determinations. The court considers several factors, including:

  1. Health, safety, and welfare of the child: The court evaluates each parent’s ability to provide a stable and safe environment for the child, taking into account factors such as housing, proximity to school, and any history of abuse or neglect.
  2. Child’s age and needs: The court considers the child’s age, developmental stage, and specific needs to determine an appropriate custody arrangement. Younger children may require more frequent contact with the primary caregiver, while older children may have preferences that are taken into account.
  3. Continuity and stability: Maintaining stability and minimizing disruption to the child’s routine is important. The court looks at the existing caretaking arrangements, the child’s school and community ties, and the potential impact of changing these arrangements.
  4. Child’s relationship with each parent: The court assesses the quality of the child’s relationship with each parent, including emotional bonds, involvement in the child’s life, and willingness to foster a positive relationship between the child and the other parent.
  5. History of domestic violence or abuse: Any history of domestic violence or child abuse is a significant factor. The court considers the safety of the child and may limit or restrict a parent’s custody or visitation rights if there is evidence of abuse or violence.
  6. Parental cooperation: The court evaluates each parent’s ability to communicate, cooperate, and make joint decisions in the child’s best interest. Willingness to facilitate a healthy co-parenting relationship is valued.

It is also worth noting that the California State Judicial Council highlights that a parent cannot be denied custody due to differences in religion, sexual orientation, or lifestyle. Moreover, physical disability cannot be used by the court as grounds for denying custody. Consulting a knowledgeable child and spousal support attorney can help you ensure your rights are not violated.


Modifying custody orders

Custody orders are not set in stone, and they can be modified if circumstances change. 

To modify a custody order, the parent seeking the modification must demonstrate a significant change in circumstances that affects the child’s well-being. The court will then evaluate whether modifying the custody arrangement serves the child’s best interest.


Parenting plan

Parents can come up with their own agreement regarding how to handle their child after the divorce without leaving the decision to the court. This agreement would need to include specifics about child custody and visitation.

This plan would need to provide exact details on how custody and other arrangements would be carried out, signed by both parents and approved by the judge. However, if no parenting plan can be agreed upon, custody will be brought before the court.


Custody: Does California give preference to mothers or fathers?

Custody determinations are made by assessing the child’s best interests. California law does not give preferences to any given parent in custody cases, and according to the law, both parents have an equal right to custody.

However, historically, custody is given to mothers more often than fathers in California. Mothers are typically the caretakers of children, and the courts more often consider this. Consequently, custody cases are often challenging for fathers.

Additionally, according to California Family Code 3042 (a), the child’s preference is considered by courts, typically when the child reaches age 14 unless the judge determines that it would be harmful to the child’s best interests. It is not guaranteed that the judge goes along with the child’s preference, as other factors are also taken into consideration. 


Utilizing a competent child and spousal support attorney

An important factor in the outcome of custody cases is the experience and ability of the attorneys involved. Often, parents getting divorced will benefit from professional legal counsel.

The California child custody laws are complicated, and the experience gained in participating in many similar court cases over time is invaluable to know how to navigate the court system effectively. Seeking help from an experienced family attorney in Woodland Hills, California will be important to ensure the best outcome for you and your family in a divorce.


Child custody cases in California

Determining custody in a divorce in California is a complex process, hopefully, guided by the best interest of the child. California courts often prioritize at least joint legal custody arrangements, aiming to maintain the child’s relationship with both parents if possible. 

The court considers several factors, including the child’s health, safety, and needs, as well as the parent’s ability to cooperate and provide a stable environment. It is crucial for divorcing parents to understand these factors and work towards developing a custody arrangement that prioritizes the well-being of their child.

Seeking the guidance of an experienced child custody attorney in Los Angeles can significantly assist you in navigating the custody determination process.


About Divorce Family Lawyer, Leon F. Bennett, Esq.

The Law Offices of Leon F. Bennett provide efficient and effective Family Law services throughout Southern California for over 35 years that satisfy you and your family’s goals. Leon F. Bennett, Esq. is an expert family law attorney in Woodland Hills, Ca., who will get the desired results for you and your family. Contact us today to request a consultation.