Determining child custody and/or visitation can be a stressful time for parents. Knowing what it entails from the start of the proceedings is important. Jaime L. Kissinger, family law attorney in Contra Costa County, provides an overview of what you need to know and expect in child custody matters in California.
Legal Custody v. Physical Custody of Children in California
When parents separate or divorce, they must determine how they will make legal decisions for their children and with whom the children will live. These two broad categories of parental responsibilities are called “legal custody” and “physical custody.” In California, legal and physical custody are arranged into four categories: sole legal custody, joint legal custody, sole physical custody, and joint physical custody.
1. Sole legal custody is where one parent has the complete right and responsibility to make major legal decisions, including decisions concerning a child's religion, travel arrangements, education, and health.
2. Joint legal custody is where both parents may weigh in on such important legal decisions. The parents must continually cooperate and communicate with one another in a joint legal custody arrangement.
3. Sole physical custody is where the children live with and are under the supervision of, one parent. The other parent is typically granted visitation rights with the children.
4. Joint physical custody is where both parents have significant periods of physical custody with the children. This ensures the children frequent and continuing contact with both parents.
Parenting Plans & Child Custody
A parenting plan spells out the legal and physical custody arrangements of the children. These plans are sometimes called time-share plans or visitation plans. When both parents agree on a plan, they can submit the plan to the court. Once a judge signs the plan and accompanying order, it becomes legally binding on both sides.
Parenting plans spell out details regarding healthcare, childcare, future communications, physical exchanges, visitation and physical custody arrangements, expenses, travel, vacations, and educational expectations. Each plan will look different, as it is designed to fit the needs of specific individuals and their children.
These arrangements can be creative and customized, but must ultimately support the best interests of the children.
If parents are not able to agree on details, they must attend mandatory mediation to work out the disagreements. As both sides have the right to have an attorney throughout the process, it is important to thoroughly explore your rights as a parent before engaging in mediation.
A licensed attorney can help you draft a parenting plan, collaborate with the children's other parent, and prepare for mediation and the court hearing where the parenting plan is finalized.
Mediation for Child Custody
If the parenting plan becomes contentious, California law requires mediation, a process where a trained neutral third party helps parents resolve sticky issues. This neutral third party will listen to both sides, answer questions, and try to help parents come to a consensus. The purpose of this is to reduce any acrimony between the parents; develop an agreement ensuring the children close and continuing contact with both parents that is in the children's best interests; and effect a settlement regarding visitation rights of the parents that are in the children's best interests.
- When mediation results in an agreement, the mediator must report the agreement to the parties' attorneys, if represented. The signed document will then be reviewed and used as the basis for the judge's final order.
- If both sides cannot come to an agreement in mediation, the judge will listen to both sides at the hearing and make final decisions regarding custody rights. In doing so, the judge will determine custody based on the best interests of the children considering the age of the children, the health of the children, the emotional ties between the parents and the children, the ability of the parents to care for the children, any history of domestic violence or substance abuse, and the children's ties to their school, home, and community.
Child Custody and Schedule Changes in California
Over time, the initial parenting plan approved by the family court may become outdated due to significant changes in the lives of children and their parents. In these cases, a modification may be necessary. If the two parents are not able to agree on the proposed changes, the parents will meet with a mediator before a formal hearing.
At all times during the process, your child custody attorney can help you understand your options and help you with the process of modifying the initial parenting plan.
Penalties for Violations of California Child Custody Orders
Once a custody order and parenting plan have been signed and approved by a judge, the agreement is binding on both parties. Intentionally violating the order and parenting plan can be grounds for a “contempt action” in court, where the party not breaching the order can enforce it.
The non-complying parent will be forced to either follow the court order or face criminal and/or civil penalties. Blocking a parent's access to a child is a serious issue in California, and may require an immediate change in the parenting orders.
Child Custody Disputes in California
Disputes over child custody issues are commonplace, but many of these disputes can be appropriately resolved with the help of a seasoned family law attorney.
A thorough understanding of your rights, your children's rights, and the common practices of the local courts will help you prepare a proper custody plan, leverage your position, and carry out arrangements that serve the best interests of your children.
Family Law Attorney Jaime L. Kissinger in Contra Costa County, California
Your time and relationship with your children are worth fighting for. Attorney Jaime L. Kissinger can help. She represents clients in Contra Costa County, Alameda County, and Solano County. Contact her office for an initial consultation and careful analysis of your legal situation.