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What to Know About California Child Custody Law

— September 8, 2022

When deciding visitation rights and how to divide custody, the court will determine the child’s best interests.

Like most states, California has two types of child custody: legal and physical. As a parent, you’re encouraged to share both types of custody. After settling for a divorce and custody, California law requires the judge to opt for joint custody as it’s in the child’s best interest. So, if you’re interested in learning more about Californian custody laws and how a judge awards custody, keep reading.

How does the Judge Decide Custody?

In California, the court begins the custody battle by treating both parents equally to the custody of the child, which means the judge isn’t biased towards one parent or the other. 

As mentioned already, the court will decide what’s in the child’s best interest by considering factors such as:

  • The child’s health, safety, and welfare 
  • The child’s contact with both parents
  • Whether one parent has a history of abuse against the other parent or the child
  • Whether one parent has a history of substance abuse, such as alcohol or prescribed medications
  • Any other factor the court considers relevant

However, since 2012, California custody law allows the court to talk to the child and consider his or her opinion on custody. In cases when the child is at least 14 years old and shows a preference, that will play a massive part in the judge’s final decision.

If you want more help learning about California laws, especially if you have an underage child, we recommend contacting some lawyers to provide more information regarding custody laws.

What is Legal Custody?

The first type of custody in California is “legal custody”, also known as the right to make vast and significant decisions about a child’s health, welfare, and education. These types of decisions may include:

  • Where the child will go to school
  • Whether the child should receive medical care
  • Whether the child will be part of religious activities

Joint Legal Custody

According to California law, “joint legal custody” refers to parents sharing the right to make decisions regarding their child’s health, welfare, and education. However, the fact that parents share joint custody doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll also share physical custody. 

Usually, parents share joint legal custody unless there are certain circumstances such as:

  • The court deems one parent unfit
  • The parents can’t make decisions together
  • One parent can’t make decisions about the general welfare of the child
  • It would be in the child’s best interests for one parent to share custody

Sole Legal Custody

Sole legal custody, on the other hand, means that only one parent can make all significant decisions about the child’s health, welfare, and education. Additionally, this parent can make such decisions without getting permission or opinion from the other parent. Similarly, if a parent has sole legal custody, that doesn’t mean they’ll also have physical custody.

Woman and two children on a park bench; image by Benjamin Manley, via
Woman and two children on a park bench; image by Benjamin Manley, via

These terms are often misunderstood, so if you’re having difficulty distinguishing between them, perhaps contacting San Francisco Custody Lawyers wouldn’t be a bad idea.

What is Physical Custody?

Physical custody is where the child will live after a divorce, hence its name. This type of custody is different from legal custody in that the parent has the right to have the child physically present. 

When deciding visitation rights and how to divide custody, the court will determine the child’s best interests. However, the initial step for couples who want to file a divorce would be to speak to experienced San Francisco Divorce Lawyers to know what to expect. 

Joint vs. Sole Physical Custody

Joint physical custody means that both parents have an equally divided physical custody time. Sole physical custody, on the other hand, refers to when a child lives with one parent only, relying on the court’s authority to order visitation rights with the other parent.

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