California Child Custody: Laws & More

In California, child custody arrangements can be decided in two main ways: jointly by the parents (with approval from a judge) or by a judge alone if the parents can't agree.

In both instances, judges have to base their decisions on the child's best interest. This means they have some flexibility as they consider the health, safety and welfare of each child in a case.

Keep in mind that some practices vary by county.

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Types of custody

Two types of custody exist: legal and physical.

Legal custody is the right and responsibility to make major decisions about the health, education and welfare of a child. In joint legal custody, both parents can make these decisions. (The court order may require them to make certain decisions together.) In sole legal custody, only one parent has authority over major decisions.

Physical custody refers to who takes care of a child. Joint physical custody means the child lives with both parents for significant periods. In sole physical custody, the child lives primarily with one parent and spends significantly less time (or no time) with the other.

California prefers joint legal and physical custody when in the best interest of the child. It's not uncommon for one parent to get sole physical custody but share joint legal custody with the other parent.

Benefits of settling

Legal proceedings can end at anytime if both parents sign a parenting plan that is then approved by a judge.

Courts and custody professionals encourage this, called settling, because it saves parents time and money, keeps the family in charge of their future and prevents further backlogging the court system.

If parents choose to litigate in court, California requires them to attend court-provided mediation in the hope they reach a settlement.

Parents can also agree without the court's help by using private mediation, collaborative law or informal negotiation.

Equal treatment of parents

California courts don't take a parent's sex or gender into account when making custody orders. The state's family code treats mothers and fathers equally.

Courts here are also prohibited from considering a parent's sexual orientation, race, immigration status, religion, physical disability or income, except in compelling circumstances.

Courts prefer to give a child frequent contact with both parents, unless this isn't in the child's best interests or the parents agree on an alternative. If physical custody is awarded only to one parent, it often goes to the parent most likely to allow the child frequent communication with the other.

If neither parent receives custody, preference then goes to the person or people with whom the child has lived.

Length of custody proceedings

If a case proceeds to trial without settlement, it's likely to take a year or more from the initial filing to the final order, depending on its complexity.

California courts try to speed up litigation by giving custody cases preference over other civil disputes for trial dates.

Alternatives to trial, like private mediation and collaborative law, often proceed much faster since they happen out of court. Two to three months is a typical duration for mediation in California. Collaboration often takes six to nine months.

Another alternative with a faster timeline is using a private judge. Private judges estimate their cases take about 10 percent less time than cases heard in public courtrooms.

Costs to expect

Child custody disputes are expensive, especially in states with high costs of living like California. The more parents compromise, the less money they spend fighting.

Attorney fees vary widely based on location, experience and more; expect to pay between $100 and $600 an hour. For straightforward cases, some legal offices charge a flat fee — usually several thousand dollars. If your case goes all the way to trial, you're not likely to pay less than $10,000 to your legal representative.

In some instances, the court decides one parent should pay all or part of the other's attorney fees. Children occasionally need their own lawyers, whose fees the parents split (depending on the court's order).

Other charges may arise during litigation. If the judge orders a custody evaluation, it can cost from $500 to tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the duration. (Again, the court determines how parents split the fees or if neither is able to pay). Should you choose to use an expert witness, they are generally paid by the hour.

Settling through private mediation is generally much cheaper than litigating because most mediators have lower rates than family lawyers and because parents typically split the cost. Collaborative law also has the potential to cut costs since everyone involved commits to avoiding trial.

Many lawyers and custody professionals offer discounted rates or work for free in special cases. If you can't afford to pay, call local offices or contact a legal help center to see what your options are.

Representing yourself

You're not required to have an attorney. In fact, in many counties, the majority of parents in court over child custody represent themselves. However, because the California Family Code is complex and lawyers have extensive training, experts do not recommend self-representation.

If you do want to litigate on your own, familiarize yourself with the resources available to parents seeking custody, or consider hiring a attorney to work on specific aspects of your case (called limited-scope representation).

In collaborative law, lawyers are required. In private mediation, on the other hand, parents often don't use lawyers because the mediator serves as a neutral party looking for a solution that works for both parents.

If you and the other parent reach an agreement on your own, you should have your paperwork checked by a professional.

Children in court

Kids 14 and up can tell the court their custody preferences unless doing so would somehow interfere with their best interests.

Younger kids can also express their wishes if the court considers them mature enough. Some superior courts allow children 12 and older to weigh in, while others rarely hear testimony from kids under 14.

Children do not get to make the judge's decision, nor can they be forced to give an opinion.

If your child is not testifying, they should not be in the courtroom.

Some counties ― like Orange and San Mateo ― offer free child care while parents are in court.


Court files in general are public records. However, in family law cases, certain documents remain confidential, such as child custody recommendations and evaluations. These are only accessible to a handful of people, including the parents and their lawyers.

You can request confidentiality for other documents, but courts don't grant these requests easily.

Religion in custody cases

California family courts don't often make decisions regarding religion. Judges typically only restrict religious activities that harm the child.

Some families prefer to decide family law issues, especially divorce, through religious arbitration. In these cases, religious representatives settle the custody disputes.

California custody laws

For more details on custody laws, see Division 8 of the California Family Code.

Staying organized during a custody case

The process of deciding custody requires serious organization. You may need to create a parenting plan, draft multiple custody and visitation schedules, track your time with your child, calculate expenses and beyond.

The Custody X Change app enables you to do all of that in one place.

With a parenting plan template, custody calendars, an expense tracker and more, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.

Take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts of your case.

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