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The basics of child custody and visitation in California

When contemplating a divorce, many Californians worry most about which spouse will be awarded physical custody of their children and what arrangements will the court order for visitation by the non-custodial parent. While the final decision on these issues will be made by the judge, the parents can play an important role in resolving issues of child custody and visitation.

Custody has two aspects: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to the spouse with whom the child lives. Legal custody means the right to make important decisions for the child, such as medical care, education and overall welfare. Both kinds of custody can be shared, subject to the parents' willingness to cooperate on these issues and the court's approval. If the divorcing parents are able to agree upon a plan to share legal and physical custody, the court will most likely approve this plan. If the parents are unable to agree, the court will make a finding about which arrangement serves the best interests of the child and award custody accordingly.

Under California law, the non-custodial parent is entitled to reasonable visitation. Again, the divorcing parents have the opportunity to specify how visitation should be handled, but the court has the last word. Visitation can be set on a flexible, open-ended basis or according to a fixed schedule if the parents are unable to cooperate in arranging visits. Occasionally, one or both parents may be deemed a threat to the child's welfare, and the court will order that visitation occur only in the presence of another adult.

Anyone with questions about custody or visitation may wish to consult a family law attorney. An attorney may be able to provide helpful advice about custody and visitation arrangements that a court will approve. An attorney may also be able to assist in drafting a joint custody or visitation proposal as part of an overall parenting plan.

Source: California Judicial Branch, "Basics of Custody & Visitation Orders," accessed on June 4, 2017

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