In California, either parent can have custody of the children, or the parents can share custody. The judge makes the final decision about custody and visitation but usually will approve the arrangement (the parenting plan) that both parents agree on. If the parents cannot agree, the judge will make a decision at a court hearing. The judge will usually not make a decision about custody and visitation until after the parents have met with a mediator from Family Court Services.
There are two kinds of child custody:
Legal custody can be:
Parents who share legal custody both have the right to make decisions about these aspects of their children’s lives, but they do not have to agree on every decision. Either parent can make a decision alone. But to avoid having problems and ending up back in court, both parents should communicate with each other and cooperate in making decisions together.
Physical custody can be:
Joint physical custody does not mean that the children must spend exactly half the time with each parent. Usually the children spend a little more time with 1 parent than the other because it is too hard to split the time exactly in half. When 1 parent has the children more than half of the time, then that parent is sometimes called the “primary custodial parent.”
Sometimes, a judge gives parents joint legal custody, but not joint physical custody. This means that both parents share the responsibility for making important decisions in the children’s lives, but the children live with 1 parent most of the time. The parent who does not have physical custody usually has visitation with the children.
Visitation (also called “time-share”) is the plan for how the parents will share time with the children. A parent who has the children less than half of the time has visitation with the children. Visitation orders are varied, depending on the best interests of the children, the situation of the parents, and other factors. In general, visitation can be:
The law says that judges must give custody according to what is in the “best interest of the child.”
To decide what is best for a child, the court will consider:
Courts do not automatically give custody to the mother or the father, no matter what the age or sex of your children. Courts cannot deny your right to custody or visitation just because you were never married to the other parent, or because you or the other parent has a physical disability or a different lifestyle, religious belief, or sexual orientation.
In addition to custody orders, the judge will probably also make child support orders. Keep in mind that a child support order is separate from child custody and visitation, so you cannot refuse to let the other parent see the children just because he or she is not making the child support payments that the court ordered. And you cannot refuse to pay child support just because the other parent is not letting you see your children. But child support and custody are related because the amount of time each parent spends with the children will affect the amount of child support. Click to read more about child support.
Sometimes, if giving custody to either parent would harm the children, courts give custody to someone other than the parents because it is in the best interest of the children. Usually this is called “guardianship,” where someone who is not the parent asks for custody of the children because the parents cannot care for them. Click for more information on guardianship.
If you cannot agree, the judge will send you to mediation and a mediator from Family Court Services or another court-related program will help you. If you still cannot agree, you and the other parent will meet with the judge. Generally, the judge will then decide your custody and visitation schedule. Learn more about mediation of custody cases.
In some cases, the judge may appoint a child custody evaluator to do a custody evaluation and recommend a parenting plan. A parent can also ask for an evaluation, but the request may not be granted. Parents may have to pay for an evaluation.
The judge also may appoint lawyers for children in custody cases. The judge will also decide who will pay for the children’s lawyer’s fees.
After a judge makes a custody or visitation order, 1 or both parents may want to change the order. Usually, the judge will approve a new custody and visitation order that both parents agree to. If the parents cannot agree on a change, 1 parent can ask the court for a change. That parent will probably have to complete certain forms to ask for a court hearing and prove to the judge that there is a significant change in circumstances (for example, the children would be harmed unless the order is changed) or other good reason to change the order. Both parents will most likely have to meet with a mediator to talk about why the court order needs to be changed.
To get an overview of the child custody and visitation process, read the Child Custody Information Sheet (Form FL-314-INFO). This information sheet is also available in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese.
Contested custody or visitation cases, where the parents cannot agree, are complicated. Talk with a lawyer to understand how the law affects you and your rights. Click for help finding a lawyer.