Factors Considered When California Courts Determine Custody

Children feel the impact of divorce even in the most amicable situations. The process and outcome of determining custody, which is the rights and responsibilities of each parent in terms of child-rearing after separation, is easily the most impactful for children. In California, courts look at a variety of factors to determine custody and always keep a child’s best interest in mind.

Below we provide a broad overview of the types of custody and custodial agreements that might be a part of your custody case and more information about the specific factors that courts review before making a final decision.

Types of Child Custody in California

Like most states, California recognizes two forms of custody: physical custody and legal custody.

Physical Custody

Physical custody in California refers to the physical location of a child, specifically which parent a child lives with. In California, physical custody can be sole, primary, or joint.

  • Sole physical custody means a child lives with one parent and rarely, if ever, visits or spends time with the other parent.
  • Primary physical custody means a child lives with one parent most of the time and the other parent has visitation rights, such as every other weekend.
  • Joint physical custody means a child lives with both parents and goes back and forth based on an agreed-upon schedule approved by the court. Even with joint physical custody, families find it difficult to evenly split time because of work and school schedules. Children often spend more time with one parent than the other.

Legal Custody

Legal custody in California refers to a parent’s right to make decisions about the well-being and future of their child. Legal custody may be joint or sole, where both parents or only one parent makes significant choices about education, health, and welfare for a child. Some common decisions those with legal custody must make or decide with the other parent include:

  • Type and location of childcare or school, such as will the child go to public or private school? What classes does the child need?
  • Religious activities, such as attending church, going to a synagogue, or attending prayer service at a mosque
  • Therapy needs to cope with divorce or other growing pains, including visiting a family therapist, child psychologist, or another mental health specialist
  • Medical and dental needs including taking a child to a pediatrician, dentist, orthodontist, or another healthcare provider
  • Participation in extracurricular activities such as sports, music lessons, school clubs, and summer camp
  • Travel whether with the other parent, with other family members, or with friends
  • Location the child calls home or the child’s primary place of residence

Factors that Judges Review Before Deciding Custody

California courts consider a wide array of factors when deciding child custody. Their decisions are guided by the best interests of the child and the idea that spending time with both parents benefits the child. Courts do not simply look at one factor but evaluate the entire situation to determine custody. Some of the most common factors that impact a child custody decision include:

  • Age and sex. It’s not true that courts automatically put a child with the same-sex parent when deciding custody, but sometimes sex factors into a custody decision depending on the age of the child. For example, infants who are still breastfeeding will need to be with their mother.
  • Health of the child. If a child has health issues that require regular medical treatment, the court may favor the parent who provides care when both parents are not involved.
  • Special needs. Courts carefully consider who provides needed care when children have special needs such as autism, cerebral palsy, or any other physical or mental health condition.
  • Physical and mental health of parents. A parent who has physical and/or mental health struggles might not be able to make the best decisions or provide care for a child.
  • Emotional ties with each parent. Courts hesitate to cut or damage emotional bonds between a child and parent unless they have a good reason.
  • Ability for parent to provide care. Those with physical custody, especially when it is not joint, need to be able to physically and financially provide care for a child.
  • Family history of domestic abuse. In the event of a proven family history of domestic abuse, it’s highly likely a judge will physically place a child with the abuser.
  • History of substance abuse. Much like physical and mental health, parents who struggle with addiction also struggle to provide the care their children need. Substance abuse issues don’t automatically mean a parent loses custody, but the court will take time to evaluate whether a parent has been through treatment and how long they have been sober.
  • Child abuse, including physical, emotional, and verbal abuse. Proven child abuse can lead to the non-abusive parent receiving sole physical and legal custody.
  • Child’s ties to school and community. If awarding custody to one parent negatively impacts a child’s ties to their community, it could factor into a judge’s decision.
  • Child’s wishes. All children have the right the express their wishes in terms of physical custody. Courts listen and especially take into account the wishes of an older child who demonstrates the maturity to make a decision about where to live.
  • Relationship with siblings. It’s highly unlikely a court will make a custody decision that separates siblings. Yet, if sibling relationships are damaging or abuse has been involved, they might factor into a California judge’s decision.
  • Interaction with extended family. Courts like to keep children near extended family when possible. Extended family also provides a support system for the custodial parent. Unless the court has a compelling reason, a judge is unlikely to make a custody decision that isolates a child from their grandparents and others.

Contact a California Custody Attorney to Get the Legal Help You Need

Child custody issues are sensitive and the outcome can impact your children for years to come. If you are in the midst of a custody battle or know one is imminent, it’s in your best interest to contact a skilled child custody attorney who can advocate for you when courts determine custody. Contact our office today online or at 818-325-3934 to discuss the circumstances of your child custody case and determine the best path forward for your situation.

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