California custody: parent-child relationships after divorce

California child custody is governed by the best interest of the child.

Divorce is one of the most stressful realities that a person can face. If child custody is involved, the stress of divorce is often amplified. An experienced California family law attorney can help navigate the tumultuous waters of child custody litigation and mitigate the fear and uncertainty.

California custody concepts

California recognizes the following two aspects of child custody: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody refers to which parent has physical care of the child and for what periods of time. Legal custody refers to the decision making power related to the child's "health, education, and welfare." Physical and legal custody can be held jointly by both parents, solely by one parent or in any combination of the two that is deemed best for the child or agreed upon by the parents.

When one parent has sole physical custody, the court may award the other parent the right to spend time with the child, which is called parenting time or visitation. The parenting schedule sets out the specific days and times that the noncustodial parent will have with the child, commonly called a parenting plan. The parenting plan is the most vital component as to the parents' time with the child, regardless of the custody label (joint or sole) being used. It should be complete and detailed in order to avoid misunderstandings that could generate unnecessary litigation.

Contested custody cases

In Sacramento, if the divorcing parents cannot come to an agreement on the appropriate custody terms for their minor child, the court will direct the parties to attend court provided child custody recommending counseling with Family Court Services, known as FCS. The counselor will meet with the parents and mediate their dispute and (in some cases) interview the child in order to make a proper assessment as to what custody plan is most appropriate. The counselor is supposed to focus on the child's needs throughout the process in order to ensure that any resulting custody plan is in the child's best interests.

Parents also have the option of requesting (using local forms) and using private child custody recommending counseling, at their own expense, if the court grants the request for this alternative. This option is preferable because private child custody recommending counseling is a longer, more in depth process and often results in a custody plan that is more in line with the best interests of the child.

Fortunately, not all child custody cases are contested. Many divorcing parents are able to negotiate a custody agreement without ever involving the court. It should be noted that even in cases where the parents have a full custody agreement, the agreement must be filed with the court for review and adoption as an enforceable custody order.

The court's best-interest standard

If the parents are unable to come to an agreement in child custody recommending counseling sessions, the counselor will make recommendations based on what he or she thinks is in the child's best interest. In Sacramento, the counselor must provide a written report with his or her recommendations to the court and the parties no later than 10 days prior to the court hearing on custody. The exception to this rule is FCS, as it often submits its report to the court just before the hearing.

At the hearing, the court will weigh various factors to determine whether the proposed custody plan is in the best interest of the child, including all of the following:

  • The health, safety and welfare of the child
  • Any history of abuse by one parent or any other person seeking custody (whether against the child, a blood sibling of the child or the other parent)
  • Habitual or continual abuse of drugs or alcohol by either parent
  • The nature and amount of contact with both parents

If, after weighing the factors above, the court determines that the proposed custody plan is in the child's best interests, the plan will be adopted as court order.

There are many complexities in California child custody law - the information above is meant as only a basic introduction to some of the most important concepts. A parent involved in a contested child custody case should retain a knowledgeable family law attorney with experience in child custody litigation for assistance throughout the process.

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