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One in five (20 percent) custodial parents is a father. Custodial parents are defined as the parent the child spends the most time with – this does not mean that all custodial parents have sole custody, but it does mean that their child spends more time with them than with the other parent.

While there are several reasons why mothers tend to be custodial parents more often – some of these reasons are rooted in how the court picks a primary caregiver – most family lawyers would say with confidence that our current custody system gives fathers plenty of opportunities to be as involved in the lives of their children as they want to be.

Nevertheless, it is a complicated system to navigate – and winning custody means understanding the system’s rules and knowing what judges are looking for in any given case while being wary of common pitfalls and problems.

The Fundamentals of Child Custody

Whenever two adults split up, usually in divorce, they have to split their marital responsibilities. These are largely divided into responsibilities regarding property and responsibilities regarding childcare. The latter is also known as child custody, and it is the process by which a court arbitrates childcaring responsibilities between two parents.

Ideally, custody cases are entirely decided by an amicable conversation between two parents with their child’s best interests at heart. Both come together to draft a comprehensive and agreeable parenting plan that suits their individual levels of involvement while compromising on parenting style and belief and taking this agreement to a judge, who reviews and officiates it.

But custody cases don’t always go according to the ideal. Differences of opinion are magnified by the vitriol and emotions running rampant during a divorce, and slight variations in parenting polarize as both parties aim to one-up the other. This kind of divorce process is unfortunately common and unbearably toxic – especially for the child and for either parent’s chances at gaining custodial privileges.

The judge’s job is to decide based on the mediation between both parents, one that is exclusively in the child’s best interests. The judges don’t care about you or the personal opinions of your ex-partner. In any custody case, the child’s wellbeing is always the first and most important concern.

It is by this tenet that any custody strategy needs to be created. Parents who want to become primary caregivers after a divorce or just want to gain visitation rights need to demonstrate that they are competent, share a loving bond with their child, and won’t compromise their safety or wellbeing in any way. Financial differences rarely factor into the discussion because of the existence of alimony and child support.

Types of Custody

There is more than just sole and joint custody. Custody is generally split between physical and legal custody, the first of which determines who the child spends the most time with, and the second determines who makes the most decisions on behalf of the child. These responsibilities can be split or mixed. For example, only one parent might have legal custody, but both parents could have physical custody.

Alternatively, only one parent might have physical custody, but both parents have a say in the child’s healthcare, education, and religious upbringing. Sole and joint custody are self-explanatory, reflecting whether the child lives under the roof and rules of a single parent or whether parenting responsibilities will continue to be shared (either in an even or uneven split) after the divorce. Custody and visitation are two different things. A parent may have visitation or time-sharing rights but will have neither physical nor legal custody over their child.

Visitation is an ideal solution in cases where one party cannot fully obligate themselves to the role of a parent but would still like to see their child. This is also a better option in custody cases where money is tight. Maintaining two homes for a child can be difficult. A parent who is unwilling to create a space and environment for their child at home despite only hosting them a few days a week is unlikely to gain custody.

What a Judge Looks For

If both parents cooperate in the interests of their child, a custody case can be resolved fairly quickly. It is up to the parents to draft a reasonable parenting plan dividing physical and legal custody and each parental responsibility. But when two parties cannot agree, the court may employ a legal mediator to help find a compromise. One way or the other, the judge’s word becomes the official custody situation until appealed or amended.

Certain special circumstances may cause a judge to grant emergency orders to protect a child in abuse or domestic violence cases. Red flags that make it much harder (and sometimes impossible) for a parent to gain custody or even visitation rights include a history of domestic violence, abuse, sexual assault, ongoing substance use disorders, felony charges, and mental health diagnoses that may endanger or hurt the child, such as psychotic episodes, self-harm, or attempted suicides.

What Is Parental Alienation?

One of the most worrisome elements of a custody case gone wrong is parental alienation. It is a set of circumstances under which one parent’s influence pressures the child into hating or resenting the other parent. While no specific laws or codices are tackling the issue of parental alienation, any attempt to manipulate your child into deliberating thinking ill of the other parent is usually a black mark against you in a custody case.

That being said, it can be difficult to prove. Many lawyers will advise their clients to record everything, be very careful and deliberate about their interactions and conversations with the other party, and speak only in neutral or praising tones of the other parent when with their child (i.e., by focusing on elements you do admire in your former spouse, such as their fortitude or ability to interact with teachers).

If you believe your case is suffering due to parental alienation, it’s important to get in touch with a legal professional and explore your options. Sometimes, children get angry at their parents during a divorce without the intervention of either party. This isn’t so much parental alienation, as it is a mental effect of divorce.

How Relocation Factors into Custody

Some parents don’t want to spend time in the same city or town as their ex after divorce. But relocation doesn’t come without its consequences, especially if your child is older but not old enough that they’d be in a transitionary stage in their life (such as transferring from a middle school to high school or preparing for college).

The other party may use the knowledge that you plan to uproot the family as ammunition against you. Furthermore, there may be more expenses to consider as you will have to juggle court dates and court fees and consider the heavy traveling time as you continue to fight for custody while adjusting to your new life. Winning custody while relocating certainly isn’t impossible, but it does make things more complex.

Ultimately, child custody revolves around proving that you’re the best parent you can be without trying to drag the other party through the mud. If you’re interested in learning more about custody cases in California, it would be a good idea to get in touch with a legal professional and discuss your options.

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