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How Child Custody Is Determined in California

Doing What’s Best for Children

Child custody cases can be filled with various complexities and heated emotions that often leave all involved feeling rather drained. The worry about how the case will be decided can wreak havoc on a person’s mental health. Knowing how judges make custody determinations, however, can bring peace of mind and fuel a well-crafted argument. Here are some of the factors that influence California child custody cases.

Types of Custody

First, it’s important to note that the California Family Code establishes both legal and physical custody. Legal custody allows those who are awarded it the right to make decisions on behalf of their child, specifically related to issues such as medical care, general welfare, and education. Physical custody, on the other hand, refers to where the child resides on a daily basis.

California Family Code establishes the preference to award custody to both parents in some fashion in an arrangement known as joint custody. Often, both parents will retain the right to make decisions on behalf of a child, and both parents may be awarded significant periods of physical custody. However, as will be explained further on, alternative arrangements will be made if such decisions will serve the best interests of the child.

Factors Considered in Custody Cases

The California Family Code lists several factors throughout various sections that ultimately come together to create the standard of serving the best interests of a child. This standard must be upheld when awarding or modifying custody decisions.

Several factors mentioned throughout the California Family Code help determine what a child’s best interests are. These factors include the following:

  • The health, safety, and welfare of the child (this factor is directly listed under California’s Family Code and is often considered the primary factor in determining a child’s best interests).

  • Any history of abuse of either parent or party seeking custody. The abuse may be committed against the child, the other parent, or another person close to the situation. In addition, there may be an independent investigation into claims of abuse.

  • The nature of the relationship between the child and parents as well as the amount of contact between both the child and the parents.

  • The presence of any substance abuse, such as drugs or alcohol.

In addition, other factors present in the case may play a role in the court’s decision when awarding custody. These factors include but are not limited to the following considerations:

  • The child’s preference (should they be of appropriate age).

  • The general conduct of each parent.

  • The recommendations of outside experts, such as child custody evaluators and mental health experts.

  • Past criminal activity.

  • Future relationships of the parents (such as through remarriage).

  • The current educational situation of the student (such as location, educational quality, etc.).

It is important to note that the California Family Code prohibits the court from considering factors such as the parents’ sex, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation when determining what custody arrangement would serve a child’s best interests.

In addition, the existence of some of the above factors will not, by itself (typically) be the deciding factor in a custody determination; the court must find that the factor will operate against the child’s best interests. For example, the mere existence of a past criminal charge does not automatically disqualify one from being awarded custody; however, the court may find that the severity of the charge or how recent the charge was may mean that more time with that parent does not serve the child’s best interests.

What About Visitation?

Determining a visitation schedule can be a battle in its own right. While previous judicial action may have led to a specific visitation schedule, the court can modify the schedule based on its findings related to what is best for the child. The court may adjust how much time a parent can spend with a child based on its determination of what is best for that child.

Consult a Custody Attorney With Questions

When going through a custody dispute, whether through a divorce, parentage, domestic violence, or some other form, it’s important to have an attorney by your side guiding you throughout the process. Consult with a custody attorney to answer your questions about custody and to help you work toward the best possible outcome for your child.
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