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Understanding Different Types of Child Custody in California

No two child custody orders are the same. In California, every order can be tailored to fit the needs of the family involved with a custom parenting plan. However, before a parenting plan can be established, California family courts must determine how custody and visitation should be awarded. 

Custody refers to the legal right to raise a specific child. Determining who this right after a divorce can quickly become complicated. Below, we break down how different types work and the most common arrangements ordered after California divorces. 

Comparing Legal vs. Physical Custody

Custody rights are divided into two categories. Physical custody is the right to have your children live with you for a significant percentage of the year. Meanwhile, legal custody is the right to make important decisions about your children’s daily lives, such as where they go to school or receive healthcare. 

These custodial rights do not need to be issued together. One parent may be awarded sole physical custodial rights, meaning the children live with them full-time. Similarly, one person may receive sole legal custody, making them the only person who can make critical decisions about the children’s lives. 

In addition, a parent without custodial rights may still be eligible for visitation. Parents with visitation have the right to spend time with their children, but the kids still live with the other person. 

How Is Custody Decided in California?

Custody cases are fundamentally about who will get to raise a child. As a result, and unlike most other legal matters, custodial disputes involve more than just the adults in the case. They also directly shape the children’s future. 

Why does this matter? It’s because California has recognized that while custodial cases substantially impact children, kids have little to no input on the outcome of the case. To address this, the state has determined that these cases must be decided according to the child’s best interests. 

According to California Family Code § 3105, “a parent’s fundamental right to provide for the care, custody, companionship, and management of his or her children, while compelling, is not absolute. Children have a fundamental right to maintain healthy, stable relationships with a person who has served in a significant, judicially approved parental role.” 

In other words, family courts are supposed to place the child’s needs first, closely followed by the parents’ rights to provide for them. Let’s explore the various ways courts may divide parental rights in different situations.

Fully Joint Custody

California Family Code § 3080 states, “There is a presumption, affecting the burden of proof, that joint custody is in the best interest of a minor child.” In other words, courts are instructed to treat joint orders as the default because it’s best for the kids.

When parents share full custodial rights, they both get to make decisions about their kids’ lives, and they divide parenting time fairly. While the children will often spend more time with one parent, they will still spend time in the other person’s household. This leads to stronger familial relationships and better outcomes when both adults are prepared, able, and willing to raise the children.

Sole Physical Custody

Sometimes, it may not be feasible for a child to spend significant time in both parents’ households. One parent may travel a lot for work, have a disability that makes caring for children alone unsafe, or live somewhere unsuitable for kids. 

The court may award the other person sole physical custody in these cases. This does not preclude sharing legal custodial rights. It simply means that the child lives year-round with the custodial parent. The other person will typically still receive visitation based on their availability, health, and the kids’ safety. 

Sole Legal Custody

California courts are less likely to award sole legal custody, but it still happens. In most cases, legal custodial rights are issued jointly unless there is reason to believe it would endanger the child. Reasons for awarding it include finding that one parent:

  • Has a history of abusive behavior
  • Lives in the same household as someone abusive or violent
  • Has a substance abuse problem
  • Is incapable of caring for the children due to mental or physical health 
  • Has made false allegations of abuse against the other person

However, providing these claims is often complicated; it is best to speak to a skilled family law attorney before seeking sole custodial responsibility. 

Common Visitation Arrangements

If someone doesn’t receive the right to have their kids live with them, they may receive visitation instead. California offers four basic types of visitation for noncustodial parents:

  • Reasonable Visitation: When this is awarded, there is no strict schedule for when the visits must occur. Instead, the adults will collaborate to allow the noncustodial parent to spend time with the kids. It’s a flexible option for amicable divorces where the parents live far apart. 
  • Scheduled Visitation: These arrangements include specifically scheduled visits in the parenting plan. As a result, there’s no room for argument about when the noncustodial party gets to see the kids, which makes it best for high-conflict cases.
  • Supervised Visitation: If a parent might put a child at risk, they may only receive limited, supervised visitation. These visits occur entirely under the supervision of the other parent or a social worker to ensure the child’s safety. This is most common for parents with substance use disorders or mental health problems. 
  • No Visitation: In rare cases, parents might not get any visitation. They do not get the right to see their kids at all. This typically only occurs if they have a history of physical abuse or sexual violence. 

Get Help With Child Custody in Your Divorce

You and your children deserve a custody order that fits your family. Before filing for divorce, schedule your appointment with the expert Corte Madeira family law attorneys at Kaspar & Lugay, LLP, about your custody preferences. We can help you handle California’s complex custody laws and achieve the best custodial outcome for your family.