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How Is Child Custody Determined in California?

Abdallah Law, A.P.C. Jan. 25, 2023

Child custody is one of the most important arrangements for divorced or separated parents to make. A fair agreement can give children and parents a solid foundation to proceed building their lives and relationships. As a family law and divorce attorney in Sacramento, California, I have counseled many couples and parents regarding their child custody options. Whenever you need experienced advice or representation, I’m here to help. 

Who Determines Child Custody in California? 

The most frequent question I get is, “What will the court consider when determining child custody?”  

My answer is: the court does not always decide on child custody. Ideally, the parents would sort out child custody matters before finalizing the divorce settlement. 

This situation opens up two specific possibilities: 

  1. First, parents can engage in a collaborative or non-contested child custody arrangement. In this situation, the parents agree on custody matters such as joint or sole custody, parenting time, visitation rights, and other decisions about the children and their well-being. 

  1. Second, a contested child custody arrangement means the parents cannot agree on a child custody arrangement. As a result, the court must step in to decide custody, visitation rights, parenting time, and other relevant matters. 

Above all, parents should strive to agree on child custody instead of dragging out a legal battle. It is always better to provide children with a stable and predictable environment. 

What Factors Are Considered When Determining Child Custody? 

The second-most common question I get is, “What will the court consider when determining child custody?” The answer has several sides to it. 

First and foremost, the court always aims to make decisions centered on the children’s well-being. Therefore, the court will avoid anything that may harm the child at all costs. With that in mind, here are the key factors the court considers when determining child custody: 

  • A key factor in child custody determinations is a stable environment. The court often grants primary custody to the parent that best offers a stable home, a safe environment, and proper care. Additionally, the custodial parent must avoid making sudden or drastic decisions, such as moving out of state quickly after winning custody. These decisions can negatively impact the custodial parent’s standing with the court and any rash decisions can motivate the non-custodial parent to petition the court to review or modify the custodial agreement. 

  • Next, the court considers the parents’ financial situations. Please note that a parent does not need a full-time job to qualify for custody. As long as they’re deemed more fit to provide the child with a stable environment, arrangements can be made for the non-custodial, higher-earning parent to pay child support and help cover the child’s basic needs. 

  • Also, the court considers living arrangements. The custodial parent must ensure a proper home for the child.  

  • The court takes the extended family into serious consideration. Ideally, the custodial parent would be able to surround the child with immediate and extended family. However, the court acknowledges that doing so is not always possible.  

  • Finally, the court will always prioritize the overall safety of the child. Additional factors they will consider include criminal history, mental health concerns, addictions, or any other factor that may hinder the custodial parent’s ability to safely care for the child. 

It is worth noting that courts do not automatically side with mothers. While the bulk of child custody decisions favors mothers, family courts must consider the full picture. As a child custody attorney, I strive to help parents from all walks of life find the best arrangement for their children get the love, protection, and resources they need to live a happy and productive childhood. 

Is Joint Custody an Option in California? 

In California, joint custody may be a viable alternative in a divorce. In joint custody, both parents share equal time with their children. This arrangement can work well to give children balanced time with both parents. In some instances, divorced parents get along very well following their divorce. As a result, they spend time together with children instead of splitting it. 

However, joint custody requires that both parents get along well. Joint custody may not be the best option if there are any concerns about conflict, distrust, or confrontations. The court may refuse joint custody if there is significant conflict between the parents. 

This custody arrangement is often a conclusion of a collaborative, uncontested divorce, where the couple sees eye-to-eye on their separation agreements. Nevertheless, the court must approve and sign off on the child custody agreement. It is a good rule of thumb to consult with an experienced family law attorney to determine the feasibility of a joint custody agreement. 

Is the Child’s Preference Considered in Child Custody Determination? 

The child’s preference can play a key role when they are old enough to express their preference.  Most California courts will consider the preferences of children above the age of 14, as they are more capable of forming their own opinions and expressing themselves, whereas small children can be easily influenced by their parents.  

Children 14+ can testify before a judge, share who they would rather live with, and explain their reasons. Please note that judges will take children’s opinions very seriously. That is why parents should avoid attempting to influence their teen children. Your efforts may backfire if you try to manipulate your child into testifying a certain way. 

Depend on Experienced Representation 

At Abdallah Law, A.P.C., your rights and your children’s best interests are my top priority. Contact my firm today to speak with an experienced and dedicated family law attorney. From my Sacramento office, I’m proud to serve families throughout the communities of Placer County, San Joaquin County, Eldorado County, Yolo County, Solano County, and Alameda County. My team is ready to take your call and get you set up with an initial consultation.