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Child Custody Laws in California

Child Custody Laws in California

Child Custody Laws in California: An Overview

Child custody refers to the legal decision-making authority and physical care responsibilities for children during and after a divorce or separation. In California, child custody laws follow the principle of the best interests of the child, which means that the court will make decisions based on what is in the child’s best interests, regardless of what parents want or agree upon. Here is an overview of child custody laws in California.

Types of Custody

In California, there are two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to the right to make decisions about a child’s health, education, and welfare, while physical custody refers to where the child lives and who takes care of them on a daily basis. Both types of custody can be joint or sole.

Joint legal custody means that both parents share the right to make decisions about the child’s welfare, while sole legal custody means that one parent has the right to make all decisions. Joint physical custody means that the child spends significant time with both parents, while sole physical custody means that the child lives with one parent and has visitation with the other.

Factors Considered by the Court

When making custody decisions, the court considers many factors, including:

– The child’s age, health, and wellbeing
– Each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s physical and emotional needs
– The child’s relationship with each parent and siblings
– Each parent’s history of drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, or domestic violence
– The child’s ties to their school, community, and extracurricular activities
– Each parent’s ability and willingness to cooperate and communicate with the other parent

Custody and Visitation Orders

If parents cannot agree on custody and visitation, the court will make an order based on the child’s best interests. The court may order joint or sole physical and legal custody, or a combination of the two. Visitation orders may include a set schedule for visits, holidays, and vacations, as well as provisions for communication between the child and both parents.

Modifying Custody Orders

Custody orders can be modified if there is a significant change in circumstances, such as a parent’s relocation, a child’s needs or preferences changing, or a parent’s inability to care for the child. To modify custody orders, parents must file a request with the court and provide evidence of the change in circumstances.

Enforcing Custody Orders

If a parent violates a custody or visitation order, the other parent can file a motion for contempt of court. The court can then enforce the order by imposing penalties, such as fines or even imprisonment.


Child custody laws in California prioritize the best interests of the child, and the court makes decisions based on many factors, including each parent’s ability to provide for the child’s physical and emotional needs. While custody disputes can be contentious and emotional, parents should prioritize their child’s wellbeing and work together to find a custody arrangement that works for everyone involved.



In the past ten years, California’s child custody laws and regulations have undergone significant updates, reflecting the state’s dedication to promoting the best interests of children involved in custody disputes. This article outlines key changes in California’s child custody laws and regulations from 2013 to 2023.

2013: Best Interests Standard

   – Adoption of the best interests standard as the guiding principle in custody determinations.

2014: Shared Custody Encouragement

   – Encouragement of shared custody arrangements to foster the involvement of both parents.

2015: Parenting Plans Mandate

   – Introduction of mandatory parenting plans outlining custody, visitation, and support details.

2016: Child’s Preferences Consideration

   – Consideration of the child’s preferences in custody decisions based on age and maturity.

2017: Grandparent Visitation Recognition

   – Recognition of grandparent visitation rights in custody proceedings.

2018: Domestic Violence Protection

   – Strengthened provisions to safeguard children from exposure to domestic violence.

2019: Mediation Promotion

   – Promotion of mediation as a means to resolve custody disputes amicably.

2020: Technology-Enabled Visitation

   – Recognition of technology-enabled visitation for non-custodial parents to maintain contact.

2021: Military Deployment Consideration

   – Consideration of military deployment’s impact on custody arrangements.

2022: Child Support Alignment

   – Alignment of child custody and child support procedures for consistency.

2023: Relocation Guidelines

   – Introduction of guidelines for parents seeking to relocate with their child, emphasizing stability.

California’s ongoing commitment to adapting child custody laws underscores the state’s dedication to the well-being of children and families. Staying informed about these changes is crucial for parents and legal professionals navigating custody matters.

Guide to Child Custody Laws in California

Divorce is never simple, but child custody can make it even more complicated.

Child custody laws in California try to do what is in the “best interest of the child.” This may sometimes lead to decisions one or both parents disagree with.

Most of the time, parents can come to an agreement on a parenting plan that satisfies both their needs and the needs of their child.

Disputes will generally be resolved by the court based on looking at a number of factors, including the child’s age and the ability of each parent to care for the child.

Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody

While people usually speak of “custody” as if it were one concept, child custody laws in California actually describe two kinds of custody.

The first kind, legal custody, refers to which parent is able to make legal decisions for the child. These decisions can include but are not limited to:

  • Deciding where (or whether) a child should attend church
  • Decisions about medical care
  • Decisions about where the children will live
  • Decisions about where a child will attend school or daycare

Physical custody refers to which parent has possession of the child at a particular time. This is what many parents mean when they refer to custody.

Child custody laws in California do not give a preference for child custody to mothers or fathers, but base physical and legal custody decisions on what the court feels are in the best interests of the child.

Joint vs. Sole Custody

Physical and legal custody can both be awarded to one or both parents. When physical custody is awarded to one parent, visitation will often be allowed for the other (see the next section).

Other times, physical custody will be given to both parents. While in theory physical custody can be split exactly evenly, in reality, one parent usually has primary custody because of the difficulty of a precisely equal time split.

Sometimes, parents will be awarded joint legal custody. When this happens, child custody laws in California say that both parents will share in the decision-making process (similar to when they were together).

You may not always agree—much like in a marriage—but you can probably negotiate the solution to most problems.

If one parent has sole legal custody (which can be more difficult to obtain), that parent can make all of the big parenting decisions for their child.


When one parent does not have physical custody of his or her children, the court will often award visitation.

Many parents will draw up complex visitation plans that specify exactly when visitation will take place so that there are no confusing or traumatic last-minute changes.

In some circumstances (usually if the court feels the child’s safety or health would otherwise be endangered), child custody laws in California allow for all visitations to be supervised.

This can happen in cases where there have been allegations of abuse, or where a child has not seen a parent in a long time.