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Child Custody Laws in California

Child Custody Laws in California

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.