How Custody Is Determined in California

Don't Make A Move Without Knowing Your Options

How Custody Is Determined in California

As a parent, your children are your top priority. If you’re getting divorced, it’s natural to want to keep your children with you as much as possible. You might worry about how your children will get along without your daily presence. You may have concerns about how they’ll be raised by your co-parent. You may simply miss them and want to see them every day. 

If your spouse feels the same way, you may face a custody dispute during your divorce. These disputes are stressful for everyone involved, particularly your children. You can potentially minimize this stress by understanding what California laws say about child custody. Here’s how these state laws work, how they’re applied, and what you can do to find the arrangement that’s best for everyone. 

California Child Custody Laws

As minors, children have limited ways to protect themselves. The job of keeping them safe and healthy is given to their parents. However, California legislators recognize that all parents may not be equally suited to raising happy and well-adjusted kids. That’s why the state has a variety of laws that dictate how custody should be awarded if parents separate.

Two primary considerations drive these laws. First, all decisions regarding care of a child are to be made to protect the child’s best interest. Regardless of other factors, California courts must always put the child’s needs above all else when determining how to award custody in a dispute. 

The other consideration is the right of a parent and a child to have a relationship. The California Family Code states that “a parent’s fundamental right to provide for the care, custody, companionship, and management of his or her children, while compelling, is not absolute. Children have a fundamental right to maintain healthy, stable relationships with a person who has served in a significant, judicially approved parental role.”

This means that parents have a compelling right to spend time with their children. Meanwhile, kids have the fundamental right to maintain healthy relationships with parental figures. However, if the court determines that a relationship is unhealthy or unsafe, it may find that it is in the child’s best interest to prevent them from spending time with a parent. 

Types of Custody

With these two considerations in mind, there are many ways that parenting rights may be awarded. California law addresses two forms:

  • Physical custody, or the right to have a child live with the parent at least part of the time
  • Legal custody, or the right to make legal decisions for a child, such as where they go to school, what medical care they receive, and what religion they are raised within

Both of these parenting rights can be awarded jointly (split between parents) or solely (to one parent). To honor parents’ rights to have a relationship with their children, courts prefer to award joint physical and legal custody unless it would be against the child’s best interest. In joint arrangements, the balance of time can vary dramatically depending on the kids’ ages and needs, from 50/50 splits to occasional visits by one parent.

Methods for Determining Custody

If you and your spouse get divorced, you need a plan to determine how you will divide your child’s time. Depending on your situation, there are two ways you can develop these plans: litigation and collaboration. Here’s how these methods work and how you can make them work for you. 


Instead of taking your dispute to court, collaboration involves sitting down with your spouse and your attorneys to develop a plan together. You’ll discuss your kids’ needs, schedules, and other concerns that may affect how you decide to divide custody. 

In the process, you’ll draft a parenting plan. This plan will explain how your children will split their time between you and how you’ll make decisions on your children’s behalf. It should include a time-share schedule that’s clear and easy to follow so there’s no doubt about when your kids will be with you or their other parent. It should also be written with some flexibility so you can make changes if something comes up. You’ll submit this plan to the court, and if it’s approved, it will become legally binding.

Collaboration is often the best choice for parents and children. If you can work together, you can develop a plan that supports your kids’ needs and fits your life without the need to go to court. The process is also usually faster and less demanding, so you can spend more time with your children during this challenging period.


If you litigate a child custody dispute, you take it before the court. The judge will hear arguments from both sides about your preferred arrangements and why they are best for your kids. They will then issue a custody order and parenting plan that both parents must follow. 

Litigation is time-consuming and stressful. However, it may be necessary if you and your spouse cannot agree on how to divide your child’s time. Litigation may also be the best solution if you believe your children won’t be safe spending time with your spouse. You will likely need to have your case heard in family court if you want to pursue sole custody. The judge’s order will be legally binding, allowing it to protect your children from an unfit parent. 

Get Help With Your Child Custody Matter

It’s never easy to split custody of your children, but divorce may mean it’s necessary. If you have children, the experienced family law attorney at CC LawGroup will work with you to pursue the best possible outcome for your split. We have more than 25 years of experience working with families like yours. We are prepared to help you negotiate or litigate your child custody case and ensure your rights are respected. Schedule your consultation today to learn more about how we can help you move forward with your custody case.