California Child Custody Process: 8 Steps
Litigating custody of a child in California consists of eight main steps. Some may be skipped or rearranged and others added, depending on your circumstances and county.
At any point, parents can agree on a plan and have a judge sign it. Then the custody process jumps to Step 8.
Private mediation, collaborative law and other alternative methods for deciding custody follow their own processes.
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Step 1: Preparation
Do your research and consider your options. Will you request sole or joint physical custody? What about legal custody? What does your ideal parenting schedule look like? Then, meet with a lawyer to come up with a legal strategy. Attorney representation is strongly recommended, but if you're not able to hire someone, you should at least do a free or low-cost consultation to hear the thoughts of a professional.
Step 2: Filing
Before you can request custody, you must open a family law case with your county's superior court; this can be a divorce, a request for a domestic violence restraining order, a paternity case or a custody case. Then you file a request for a custody order, which can be done by either parent. Once the other parent has been served with a copy of your court papers, they can file a response.
Possible: Emergency custody hearing
If a child is at risk of being harmed or removed from the state within the next few days, a parent can request an expedited hearing to determine if emergency temporary orders are necessary (also called ex parte orders). If a judge issues emergency orders, they stay in effect until the next hearing, when they can be terminated, replaced by temporary orders or extended.
Step 3: Orientation
Many counties in California require parents to complete a short orientation at the start of their custody-related case. Often times, it can be done online, such as in Los Angeles, Santa Clara and Napa counties. If your county doesn't require orientation, the video introduction to child custody mediation from California Courts can help you prepare for your next step.
Step 4: Court-ordered mediation
Parents are required by law to attend mediation before having a judge decide their custody or visitation arrangement. They will meet for free with a court-employed mediator for up to several hours, and lawyers will not be present.
The goal of mediation is to develop a detailed parenting plan the parents both support, which can be signed by a judge to become a final order. If mandatory mediation does not result in total agreement, some counties' mediators give recommendations to the court. In other counties, mediators simply report that an agreement was not reached.
Remember that anytime parents are able to agree on a parenting plan ― through mediation, informal negotiation or otherwise ― a judge can sign it, and the custody process jumps to Step 8.
Step 5: Hearing
If mediation did not result in a parenting agreement, it will be followed by a hearing. This is generally the first time the parties meet with a judge, though some counties require an initial hearing before court-ordered mediation.
After reviewing the facts of your case, the judge will do one or more of the following:
- Order a child custody evaluation if they want a mental health professional to weigh in
- Appoint child's counsel if they believe the child needs a lawyer
- Give temporary custody orders if the parties can't agree on a parenting arrangement for the duration of the custody proceedings
- Order another hearing or a trial
Hearings are opportunities for you to briefly present your argument and evidence to the judge so he or she can determine next steps. The parents and their lawyers typically all speak.
You may have as few as one hearing or as many as 10 hearings throughout your case, depending on your family's circumstances.
Step 6: Conferences
Conferences are essentially meetings with the judge, and they generally happen in the judge's chambers. Many times, parents who have lawyers send the lawyers in their places.
Different counties use different types of conferences.
A pretrial conference or trial setting conference makes sure both parents are ready for trial, estimates how long the trial is likely to take, sets ground rules and more.
In a settlement conference, the parents again come together to try to find common ground and avoid a trial. This time, the judge guides the parents toward a solution. Some counties do not require or offer this step, while others use multiple settlement conferences.
Step 7: Trial
If parents are unable to settle, they will ultimately end up in trial.
A trial is like an extended, more formal version of a hearing. Both parents get to present evidence and question witnesses in front of the judge so he or she can issue a ruling.
A trial can last hours, days, weeks or, in extremely complicated cases, months. Often there's a significant waiting period between the last hearing and the trial because court calendars fill up and lawyers need time to gather evidence.
At the end of the trial, the judge will announce their decision. Once signed, it is known as a final custody order.
Step 8: Final custody orders
To bring the custody process to a close, a judge will sign a final custody order. It lays out, in the form of a parenting plan, the legal terms all parties must abide by until each child involved turns 18 or is emancipated. The details are decided either by a judge after a trial or by the parents themselves, with the judge signing off.
As children grow older and their lifestyles change, orders often need to be modified several times. Parents can develop a new parenting plan together or one can request that the court modify the existing plan.
If the other parent doesn't follow a court order, you should keep detailed notes of the violations. For serious or repeat violations, you can contact police or file for contempt with the court.
Throughout your case
The Custody X Change online app enables you to do all of this in one place.
With a parenting plan template, customizable custody calendars, a digital parenting journal and beyond, Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared for whatever arises in your journey to child custody.
Throughout your case, take advantage of our technology to stay on top of all the moving parts.