Child Custody in California
Child custody can be one of the most contentious parts of divorce in California. At Los Angeles family law firm S.L. Pitts, we know how important your children are to you. You may be concerned about what your post-divorce relationship with your children will be like. You may also have many, many questions about how custody works, such as where your children will live, and who gets to make decisions – both big and small – about them? Here are answers to some of your most urgent questions about child custody in California.
Many family law litigants assume that each parent has an inherent equal “right” to time with their child and that the court should and must grant a 50/50 parenting plan. This assumption is incorrect. The court does not and will not evaluate child custody determinations between parents through the analytical framework of “parental rights.”
The “Best Interest of the Child” Determines Custody
California courts are required to make child custody determinations based on the best interest of the child. This standard may result in the court ordering a 50/50 parenting plan, but not necessarily.
California Child Custody: the Primary Goal is to Preserve Stability for the Children
While divorce necessarily alters the status quo for a child, California courts almost universally recognize that the best thing for a child whose parents are divorcing is to preserve as much stability for the child as they possibly can. Where feasible, the court will endeavor to keep minor children in the family home. The court will want the children to continue their current activities and will not want to separate siblings. All of this is aimed at preserving stability for the children.
The court will assess the emotional ties between the child and each parent as well as the history of each parent’s involvement in caring for the child. Depending on the age of the child, this can include a broad range of things: who usually does the bedtime routine, who arranges and takes the child to medical appointments and activities, who helps the child with homework, etc.
In households where one parent does most of these duties, courts may order the children to reside most of the time with that parent because it comes closer to preserving the historical pattern of parenting established by the parties. In these cases, the other parent would have some version of an every other weekend visitation schedule.
In households where parenting duties were shared more equally, courts may order a 50/50 residential schedule.
There is a Broad Range of Possible Child Custody Arrangements
When attorneys and courts talk about residential schedules, we speak of “physical custody” and we do so in terms of a two-week or 14-day cycle. A 50/50 residential schedule would be called a “7/7 plan”: seven days with one parent, seven days with the other parent. A “10/4 plan” would be ten days with one parent and four days with the other parent. Most “every other weekend” parents have plans that range from 12/2 to 10/4 plans. In plain language, that means the parent has every other weekend, starting on Thursday or Friday after school and ending on Sunday evening or Monday morning.
Parents with “joint physical custody” have residential schedules that are usually either 7/7 or 8/6 plans.
The exact plan will often depend on the age and developmental needs of a child. If a child is very young, then the court will be reluctant to separate them from their primary caregiver for more than one or two overnights.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to structuring parenting plans and, ideally, each one should be tailored to a family’s individual needs. Dr. Philip M. Stahl authored a very helpful parenting plan guide for the state of Arizona that does a good job of outlining some of the many residential schedules available and which ones are appropriate for the age and developmental needs of a child. Here is a link to his guide: https://www.azcourts.gov/portals/31/parentingTime/PPWguidelines.pdf.
The Los Angeles Family Law Firm of S.L. Pitts is here to help review all of your options for child custody arrangements. We understand how complicated and contentious these issues can be, and will create a plan that is in the best interest of the child.
California Courts Usually Order Joint Decision Making (Referred to as Legal Custody)
In an emergency, each parent is given full authority to make decisions on behalf of the child. If your child has just been taken to the emergency room with a broken arm, you can authorize the physician to immediately provide medical care for your child without first obtaining the other parent’s consent.
However, most decisions are not emergencies. Which pediatrician to select, which sport to enroll the child in, whether the child should get a tattoo: all of these are non-emergency decisions that the court will typically expect the parents to make jointly.
However, where one parent has abused either the child or the other parent, the court will restrict the abusive parent’s ability to participate in major decisions.
Special Circumstances Affecting Child Custody in California
In addition to the above considerations, there are several other factors that can have a significant impact on the court’s determination of child custody, some of which are discussed below.
If a parent has a drug or alcohol impairment, then it will likely result in restrictions on that parent’s time with the children. While the court will always strive to maintain a child’s relationship with both parents, a child’s safety necessarily takes top priority. Where there are credible concerns that a parent’s drug or alcohol use impairs their ability to safely care for the child, the court will likely require that parent to successfully complete drug or alcohol treatment before being granted a normalized visitation schedule with the child.
Similarly, if a parent abused the child, the court will likely restrict that parent’s custody until they can show that the child will be safe in their custody. A parent who has committed domestic violence toward the child will usually need to complete domestic violence treatment and several months of counseling prior to a normalized visitation schedule. In some instances, an abusive parent may have their visitation permanently restricted or even terminated.
In high-conflict cases, courts will often structure child custody plans to minimize contact between the parents. This might entail fewer exchanges in favor of longer visitations or using pick up and drop off at school as the exchange so that the parents rarely have to interact. In addition, because high-conflict parents are generally incapable of making decisions together, it is not uncommon in these cases to award sole legal custody (decision making) to one parent.
The Los Angeles Family Lawyers at S.L. Pitts Can Help to Protect Your Bond with Your Children
Our Los Angeles family lawyers have decades of experience helping parents to resolve their child custody disputes and create customized visitation orders for their unique family situation. If you have questions about child custody in California, including visitation orders and decision-making authority, contact the child custody attorneys at S.L. Pitts today. We will work hard to safeguard the all-important relationship between you and your children both during and after divorce. We can also protect all other interests related to divorce, including child support, spousal support, property division, and more.