What is the Difference Between Physical and Legal Custody?

It’s important to understand the two different types of child custody arrangements in California. Each type influences custody decision-making.

Legal custody relates to parental rights and responsibilities to make important life decisions for a minor child. These important legal decision-making authorities include the right to decide on the child’s education, healthcare, social activities, religious upbringing, and general well-being. Legal custody can be awarded to one parent solely or shared jointly.

The other type of child custody, known as physical custody, determines the child’s primary living arrangements and which parent handles day-to-day childcare. Physical custody impacts the child’s daily life. It can be either awarded to a sole parent or awarded as joint custody, allowing the minor child to split time between both parents.

Who Determines Child Custody in California?

Child custody is among the most emotionally difficult and legally complex matters in any divorce case. It is often fiercely contested, resulting in the need to retain professional legal representation. Ultimately, who determines child custody depends on unique factors within each divorce case.

In collaborative or non-contested divorces, the parents can work together to mutually agree on child custody terms. These agreed-upon terms will be documented and presented to a family law court for official legal approval.

In a contested divorce, both parents cannot agree on the key factors relating to child custody. In such divorce cases, a family law court will intervene and help determine custody arrangements based on what they deem to be in the child’s best interests.

What Factors Influence a Family Law Judge’s Decision-Making in Child Custody Cases

Several factors go into determining child custody cases in California. These include:

  • Home environment. The court will consider who else lives in the home.
  • In certain cases, the child’s preferences for who they would like to live with will be considered.
  • Siblings and other individuals. Relationships with siblings, stepsiblings, stepparents, grandparents, cousins, and other relatives are often important to maintain in a child’s developmental years. If possible, judges would prefer not to disrupt these relationships.
  • Stability and continuity. Many family law judges prioritize maintaining a certain level of stability in the child’s life. This may mean that if the child has attachments to their current home, school, friends, or community, the family law judge may be reluctant to disrupt that stability.
  • The ability of either parent to provide emotional and financial support to the child. This will include assessing each parent’s capabilities to provide a healthy and nurturing environment for the child, attend to the children’s daily needs, and support their emotional and educational development.
  • The age and health of the child.
  • The age, health, and lifestyle of each parent.
  • The child’s safety must be at the forefront of all decision-making in a family law court. If there are concerns about substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, or neglect in either household, the courts will take these matters very seriously.
  •  The distance between the two parents.
  •         The emotional bond that has been forged between the child and either parent. If one parent has stronger interests or knowledge in the child’s day-to-day life or pursuits, the court may believe they have a higher tendency to provide the adequate support the child needs.
  • The quality of education the child receives at their current address. If the other parent presents an opportunity for a better education, the court will consider this.
  • Whether or not either parent is willing to encourage a healthy and meaningful relationship between the child and the other parent. The parents who poison their children against the other parents could find their custody arrangements and parenting time restricted.

What Factors is the Family Law Court Not Allowed to Consider When Determining Child Custody? 

When making child custody arrangements, a family law court is not allowed to consider the following factors:

  •  A judge cannot consider religion unless there is a result of harm to the child.
  • A parent’s sexual orientation cannot be used to determine child custody unless it has been shown to be detrimental to the child’s mental or physical health.
  • Child custody determinations cannot be made based on race.
  • Family courts cannot deem a parent unfit because of physical disability.
  • It is impermissible for family law courts to award child custody based on one parent’s economic advantages over the other.
  • The gender of the parent cannot be used to determine custody.
  • Unless there is evidence that a parent’s sexual relations with other adults could be a negative influence on the child’s life, those relations are not relevant when awarding child custody.

What is in the ‘Best Interests’ of the Child?

The California Family Code establishes the ‘best interest of the child’ standard. This standard is the guiding principle on which child custody determinations are based. The court considers several factors when determining what is in the best interests of the child, including the following:

  • History of domestic violence or abuse.
  • Maintaining continuity and stability in the child’s life.
  • Parental cooperation.
  • The child’s age and needs.
  • The child’s relationship with either parent.
  • The health, safety, and well-being of the child.

Is Joint Custody a Realistic Option?

Joint custody is always preferred. If the two parents cannot come to a negotiated agreement, the court does not explicitly favor joint custody in any case. Rather, they will examine the unique facts of each case to determine whether joint custody is possible. In some cases, it may be deemed unsafe or reckless to award joint custody to both parents.

Contact Us for an In-Depth, No Obligation Case Evaluation Today

When making child custody decisions, the parents and the courts must always consider what is in the best interest of the children. Sometimes, these child custody cases can result in fiercely combative legal matters and long, drawn-out courtroom cases. In such child custody cases, it is strongly encouraged that parents retain professional legal counsel from experienced divorce lawyers.

Contact our law firm for legal assistance in your child custody case today. You may reach us at 714-701-6356.