How Does the California Family Court Determine a Child’s Best Interests?
Whenever unmarried parents decide to raise their children separately or when married parents divorce, the parents must have legally enforceable custody orders that outline their respective parental rights and responsibilities. Regardless of whether the couple is married, they will need to have the California family court determine the outcome of their custody dispute. This is not a legal matter that parents can resolve privately, and all parents facing custody determinations should prepare for difficult and emotionally stressful court proceedings.
The California family court has a legal obligation to protect any children the court’s rulings affect. This means preserving a child’s best interests in every family court case. However, “the child’s best interests” are relatively open to interpretation, and every case will involve unique details. Therefore, if you are preparing for a custody determination in California family court, it’s vital to know how judges make these decisions.
Determining Fitness of a Parent
The first thing a family court judge is likely to review when handling a custody determination is each parent’s overall fitness to manage their child’s needs. The judge will assess whether a parent has committed past criminal offenses that indicate they pose a danger to the child as well as the overall health and mental condition of the parent. If the parent has a substance abuse disorder, mental health condition, or a disability that would prevent them from handling all of their child’s day-to-day needs, the judge must evaluate these factors carefully.
A parent can be quickly deemed unfit for custody if there is any evidence of them committing child abuse, domestic violence, or past incidents of violent crime. If a parent loses their parental rights involuntarily due to these or similar issues, it will be tough for them to obtain any measure of custody rights in the future. It’s also possible for the custody determination to include a restraining order preventing the noncustodial parent from contacting their child or the custodial parent. They will also continue to be responsible for paying child support.
Awarding Custody in California Family Court
If a judge deems both parents in a custody determination to be fit parents, the judge is likely to issue a joint custody determination. This means the parents will share parental rights and responsibilities, and the decision will involve two forms of custody. First is physical custody, which applies to residency and determines where the children will live and spend time. Physical custody is typically measured by the number of overnight stays a child has with a parent during the year. Some residency agreements involve trading custody every week or every few days, while others allow longer blocks of time for each of the parents.
The second form of custody is legal custody, or the ability to make significant decisions on a child’s behalf. When a judge determines that both parents are fit, they may award even legal custody to the parents and arrange physical custody differently according to the needs of the children. The parents would need to consult one another regarding major medical, spiritual, educational, and developmental decisions for their children.
Factors Considered in Custody Determinations
When a judge rules on a custody determination, their final decisions regarding physical and legal custody must align with the child’s best interests. The factors they must consider when making these determinations, beyond the fitness of each of the parents, include:
- The child’s preferences if the child is old enough to convey them convincingly. Judges will want to hear from children old enough to offer their own testimony to evaluate the strength of the bonds between the child and each of their parents.
- The child’s unique needs. If a child has a medical condition, disability, developmental disorder, or other special requirements, the judge must consider this when resolving custody.
- The living arrangements of each parent. Both custodial parents must have space for their children and the ability to meet their basic needs. The judge will also examine how close each parent’s residence is to the other parent, the child’s school, nearby medical facilities, and extended family members.
- The child’s educational needs. Judges prefer to minimize disruption to a child’s everyday routine when the child is already experiencing household turmoil from a divorce or separation. Therefore, judges tend to have children remain in their family home when one parent assumes ownership of the house to prevent the children from needing to change schools. However, one parent could make a convincing argument for relocation if they move to an area with schools better suited to the child’s educational needs.
A child custody agreement often requires the child to spend time with each parent on an alternating basis, but every case will involve unique details, and there is no single formula that applies to every custody determination.
California family court judges are legally required to consider all relevant information when deciding custody of a child. Additionally, parents should remember they have the right to petition the court for reasonable changes to a custody order in the future. Life can pose unpredictable challenges, and a parent’s situation may change to the point of rendering a custody order untenable. An experienced legal team can help you navigate a custody case or adjust a custody order already in place in California.
How Can an Attorney Help Me?
If you are preparing for a divorce and/or custody determination in California, it’s vital to have legal counsel you can trust from an experienced family court lawyer. The right attorney can help you make a strong case for custody, proving your fitness as a parent and ability to handle your child’s unique needs. Your attorney may also assist you with addressing related legal matters, such as preparing your financial disclosure statement for a child support determination or a larger divorce case.
CA Custody Law from Bickford Blado & Botros
Ultimately, legal counsel can make a tremendous difference in the outcome of your custody dispute. The attorneys at Bickford Blado & Botros have assisted many past clients with difficult custody determinations. We can put this experience to work for you. Contact us today to schedule a case evaluation with our team.
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