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Understanding California’s child custody laws

California couples contemplating divorce should be aware of the state’s child custody laws. For instance, as set out by the California court system, there are two types of custody: legal and physical.

Legal custody has to do with which parent makes important decisions about the child, such as the following:

  • Health care
  • Education
  • Child care
  • Religious affiliation
  • Sports and other extracurricular activities
  • Vacations and other travel

Physical custody has to do with which parent the child lives with.

Joint legal custody

Both legal and physical custody can be sole or joint. If the court grants joint legal custody to both parents, each of them has an equal say in any decisions pertaining to the child.

Joint physical custody

If the court grants joint physical custody to both parents, this does not necessarily mean that the child spends 50 percent of his or her time with each parent. Usually in the case of joint physical custody, the court designates one parent as the primary custodial parent. Often this is a purely practical decision based on the parents’ respective housing accommodations, work and travel schedules, distance from the child’s school, and how much time each parent actually can devote to the child.

Mixed custody

Depending on the couple’s specific situation, the judge may grant joint legal custody but sole physical custody. In such an arrangement, both parents have input into decisions regarding the child, but (s)he lives with only one of them. Nevertheless, the noncustodial parent has substantial visitation privileges unless special circumstances preclude this.

Special circumstances

As FindLaw explains, the overriding concern of California courts is the best interests of the child. Consequently, a judge can consider anything and everything having to do with a child before granting legal and physical custody. This includes taking a close look at the family’s history to see if there are any allegations, substantiated or unsubstantiated, of spousal abuse and/or child neglect or abuse.

While physical safety and comfort are of primary importance, the judge also takes other things into consideration such as the following:

  • The child’s current physical and emotional health
  • His or her ties to other siblings
  • His or her ties to extended family members
  • His or her ties to the existing school and community

Once the divorce is final, either parent can come back to court in the future and ask for a custody modification if one or more substantial changes occur with regard to the child or either parent. Once again, the judge considers the best interests of the child before making any changes to the existing custody arrangement.

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