Child Custody in California: Everything You Need to Know

In 2021, about 40% of all family households included children younger than 18. When spouses or partners with minor or special needs children separate, they must make critical decisions about where these children will live, who will make decisions for them, and how they’ll visit the other parent.

It’s best for parents to work together to solve these sometimes difficult problems. Children from high-conflict divorces can develop mental health challenges, including post-traumatic stress disorder, so it’s in the best interest of the child for parents to make an effort to keep the process as smooth as possible.

If you can’t agree with your co-parent, courts can step in and make orders regarding custody and visitation. Courts can also help if families change and need to rectify their child-related arrangements.

Understanding Child Custody in California

Two Types of Custody

Married parents automatically have custody of their children. But when those couples split up, they must determine who has custody. In California, two types of custody exist:

Legal Custody

Children younger than 18 require a parent’s legal guidance. An adult with legal custody can make choices about the following for a child:

  • Health care
  • Education
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Travel arrangements

California courts can ask parents to share legal custody so they make joint decisions for the child. Or, courts can give legal custody to just one parent.

Physical Custody

Orders regarding physical custody dictate where a child will live. Some couples share joint physical custody, allowing the child to split time between two residences on a schedule the parents agree to. Conversely, one parent with sole custody can keep the child the majority of the time. A parent like this is a “primary custodial parent,” and the other partner may see the child on a visitation schedule.

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How Judges Determine Child Custody

California laws require judges to consider what is in the best interest of the child when determining custody cases. That means one parent (like the mother) doesn’t automatically get custody of a child.

“Best interest” is a deliberately vague legal term that allows judges to make plans for individual children based on what is right for them and their families. Children are individuals, and what is best for one might be wrong for another. Judges can take a family’s quirks and strengths into account when determining custody cases.

The court can consider the following about the child:

  • Age
  • Physical and emotional health
  • Relationships with parents
  • History of a happy life with the parents
  • Connection to the community

Unless a parent has neglected or abused a child, parental rights aren’t at risk during a custody case. Instead, the court looks for ways to help a child maintain loving relationships with both parents.

Four Types of California Visitation Orders

A parent without physical custody is typically granted visitation. Courts want children to maintain their connection to both parents, and since legal rights aren’t severed during custody cases, a non-custodial parent has the right to see a child.

Four types of visitation orders exist, which are as follows:

Scheduled Visitation

Parents (or the courts) develop a schedule for the child to visit the non-custodial parent. Schedules can include details about birthdays, holidays, and vacations.

Reasonable Visitation

Amicable parents can use a looser arrangement to share their children. They must communicate clearly to avoid misunderstandings, but a plan like this can allow parents to adjust as needed.

Supervised Visitation

If a child’s safety or well-being is at risk during a visit, courts can ask a third party (like the custodial parent or a professional agency) to remain present.

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No Visitation

This type of visitation plan protects children from parents who might harm them, even with supervision, during a visit.

How to Get Custody in California

Make a Request to the Courts

Divorces are family law cases in California, and couples typically settle their childcare concerns during this process. Couples with an open divorce case can ask the courts to make custody arrangements while the case moves forward. Fill out a Request for Order form (FL-300), and ask the judge to rule on an arrangement you outline.

As part of your divorce, you and your spouse have likely traded paperwork about a child’s custody. If your requests don’t match and you can’t agree, a judge will send you to mediation. If you still can’t agree, a judge will decide for you during a court case.

Craft a Parenting Plan

Collaborative couples can create their own arrangements, write them down, sign them, and file them. Parenting plans like this don’t require court cases, and judges typically approve them if they demonstrate care and consideration for a child’s welfare.

You must include forms with your parenting plan:

  • Stipulation and Order for Custody and/or Visitation of Children (FL-355)
  • Child Custody and Visitation Order Attachment (FL-341)
  • Children’s Holiday Schedule Attachment (FL-341(C))
  • Additional Provisions: Physical Custody Attachment (FL-341(D))
  • Joint Legal Custody Attachment (FL-341(E))

Take two copies and the originals of all your forms to the court handling your divorce or separation and file them.

How to Change a Custody or Visitation Plan

Families change, and sometimes, the arrangements you make during a divorce must be altered, too. The Request for Order (FL-300) form starts the process. Tell the court what you want to change, and outline why it’s best for your child. Include your court case number from your divorce or separation on your form.

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Attach other forms like Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Application Attachment (FL-311) if you need more space to outline what you want to change and why.

Make two copies of both of your forms, and take them and the originals to the court to file them.


Co-parenting can be challenging, but putting the best interest of the child first is crucial. California’s family law system provides guidance on child custody and visitation to ensure children maintain healthy relationships with both parents. By understanding the different types of custody and visitation orders and the process to obtain or modify them, parents can work towards providing a stable and nurturing environment for their children.


Q: Can parents change custody arrangements without going to court? A: Yes, parents can work together to modify custody arrangements without court involvement by creating a parenting plan and filing it with the court for approval.

Q: What factors do California judges consider when determining custody? A: California judges consider various factors, including the child’s age, physical and emotional health, relationships with parents, and history of life with the parents.

Q: Can a non-custodial parent be denied visitation rights? A: In cases where a child’s safety is at risk, a court may order supervised visitation or deny visitation altogether.

Q: How much does it cost to change custody or visitation orders in California? A: The cost to change custody or visitation orders can vary, but it typically involves a fee between $60 and $85, depending on the court and case specifics.

Q: Can custody orders be modified after they are in place? A: Yes, custody orders can be modified if there is a significant change in circumstances or if it is in the best interest of the child.

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