Understanding California Child Custody Laws

Under the California Family Code, Division 8, Part 2, Chapter 1, there are two basic guiding policies in determining California child custody laws:

  1. The court’s primary concern must be the welfare of the children.
  2. Children benefit the most from frequent and continuing contact with both parents.

It is only when these two policies are in conflict that the courts will act accordingly to determine what kind of child custody and visitation arrangement ensures the “health, safety, and welfare of the child and the safety of all family members.” In the state of California, parents have an equal right to their children, with no bias towards mothers nor fathers. The courts prefer when parents can work together to figure out the best way to raise their child.

Yet, they will intervene when the parents either cannot figure it out, or when evidence exists proving that one parent is unfit to provide or maintain parental responsibilities. There is no legal definition for an unfit parent in California. However, the court will appoint evaluators to figure out if a parent cannot fulfill their obligations as a parent. These include evidence of certain criminal activity, incompetence, or the financial or emotional inability to care for a child.

If a parent abandoned a child or repeatedly failed to provide proper parental care and protection, they may be declared unfit. Custody and visitation are among the various things that must be determined when parents separate, when making decisions about the education and caretaking of their children. Custody is either the physical custody of a child (who your child lives with) or the legal custody of a child (who has the right to make decisions for them). Both physical and legal custody may be either joint (shared) or sole.

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Child Custody and Visitation Rights for Fathers

Custody determines who the child lives with and who makes decisions regarding the child’s education, upbringing, and other related factors. Visitation is the determination of how much time a child spends with each parent. As with custody, courts prefer that parents work out a visitation or parenting plan together. Parents can either decide to split a child’s time equally or go by an arrangement that limits one parent’s visitation rights. If both parents can’t agree on a visitation plan, then the court must decide.

Several factors determine a parent’s visitation rights, including any history of abuse, violence, or criminal behavior, geographic location, financial means, and time available for the child (based on work obligations and scheduling). In general, the courts will not decide on custody and visitation until the parents have first met with a mediator from Family Court Services. The issue will be taken to a judge, either for a ruling or an approval, only after custody and visitation mediation.

Modifying Child Custody and Visitation Orders

In California, child custody and visitation orders cannot be changed unless both parents agree to any given changes and file them in court. Alternatively, one parent may ask for a change but must justify why said change would be appropriate/beneficial for the child. To modify or change a custody order, you must show that there has been a change of circumstances since the last time the order was set.

This order modification or change must be for the benefit of the children and in their best interests. It is important to approach a mediator at Family Court Services before taking a child custody or visitation order modification request to court, in case the request requires mediation first.

When to Seek Legal Help

The courts seek to find the best arrangement possible for the well-being of the child. If you find that the direction your custody case is going in is not in the best interests of your child, seek legal representation to learn more about California child custody laws.


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