Child Custody & Visitation

In California, either parent can have custody of the children, or the parents can share custody. The judge makes the final decision about custody and visitation but usually will approve the arrangement (the parenting plan) that both parents agree on. If the parents cannot agree, the judge will make a decision at a court hearing. The judge will usually not make a decision about custody and visitation until after the parents have met with a mediator from Family Court Services.

There are two kinds of child custody:

  • Legal custody, which means who makes important decisions for your children (like health care, education, and welfare), and
  • Physical custody, which means who your children live with.

Legal custody can be:

  • Joint, where both parents share the right and responsibility to make the important decisions about the health, education, and welfare of the children.

                            OR

  • Sole, where only 1 parent has the right and responsibility to make the important decisions about the health, education, and welfare of the children.

Parents with legal custody make decisions or choices about their children’s:

  • School or child care
  • Religious activities or institutions
  • Psychiatric, psychological, or other mental health counseling or therapy needs
  • Doctor, dentist, orthodontist, or other health professional (except in emergency situations)
  • Sports, summer camp, vacation, or extracurricular activities
  • Travel
  • Residence (where the children will live)

Parents who share legal custody both have the right to make decisions about these aspects of their children’s lives, but they do not have to agree on every decision. Either parent can make a decision alone. But to avoid having problems and ending up back in court, both parents should communicate with each other and cooperate in making decisions together.

Physical custody can be:

  • Joint, which means that the children live with both parents.
  • Sole or primary, which means the children live with 1 parent most of the time and usually visit the other parent.

Joint physical custody does not mean that the children must spend exactly half the time with each parent. Usually the children spend a little more time with 1 parent than the other because it is too hard to split the time exactly in half. When 1 parent has the children more than half of the time, then that parent is sometimes called the “primary custodial parent.”

Sometimes, a judge gives parents joint legal custody, but not joint physical custody. This means that both parents share the responsibility for making important decisions in the children’s lives, but the children live with 1 parent most of the time. The parent who does not have physical custody usually has visitation with the children.

Visitation (also called “time-share”) is the plan for how the parents will share time with the children.  A parent who has the children less than half of the time has visitation with the children. Visitation orders are varied, depending on the best interests of the children, the situation of the parents, and other factors. In general, visitation can be:

  • Visitation according to a schedule: Generally, it helps the parents and children to have detailed visitation plans to prevent conflicts and confusion, so parents and courts often come up with a visitation schedule detailing the dates and times that the children will be with each parent. Visitation schedules can include holidays, special occasions (like birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, and other important dates for the family), and vacations.
  • Reasonable visitation: A reasonable visitation order does not necessarily have details as to when the children will be with each parent. Usually, these orders are open-ended and allow the parents to work it out between them. This type of visitation plan can work if parents get along very well and can be flexible and communicate well with one another. But if there are ever disagreements or misunderstandings, this kind of an open schedule can cause issues between the parents, and the children may suffer as a result.
  • Supervised visitation: This is used when the children’s safety and well-being require that visits with the other parent be supervised by you, another adult, or a professional agency. Supervised visitation is sometimes also used in cases where a child and a parent need time to become more familiar with each other, like if a parent has not seen the child in a long time and they need to slowly get to know each other again.
  • No visitation: This option is used when visiting with the parent, even with supervision, would be physically or emotionally harmful to the children. In these cases, it is not in the best interest of the children for the parent to have any contact with the children.

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