Child Custody in California Divorce

In California courts and in the laws regarding children, the term “custody” is used.

There are two types of custody: Legal Custody and Physical Custody.

“Legal custody” refers to the right to make major decisions about a child’s health, education and welfare. “Sole legal custody” means only one parent has the right to make such decisions. If both parents share the right and responsibility to make these decisions, they have “joint legal custody.

“Physical custody” refers to the right and responsibility to care for and supervise the child. “Sole physical custody” means that a child resides with and is under the supervision of one parent; the other parent (the "non-custodial parent") may have the right to visitation if a court believes visitation is in the child's best interests. Parents have “joint physical custody” if the child lives with each parent for significant periods of time.

All parents have a duty to support the child, to provide food, shelter, clothing, education, and medical/dental care for the child, regardless of whether or not the parent is a managing conservator or possessory conservator.

In California, the law has no presumption for or against joint legal custody or joint physical custody. Rather, the court applies the “best interests” doctrine, and will award full or joint physical custody to the parent or parents, according to what the court determines is in the best interests of the child.

In California, when parents separate or divorce, a court will issue orders for custody and visitation arrangements based on what is in the best interest of the child. In general, the goal of a custody order is for both parents to maintain frequent and continuing contact with their child(ren).

The court may decide that parents should have joint custody, which means that the child will live with both parents almost equally according to a set schedule, or the court can order that one parent has sole custody, so that the child lives mostly with one parent, and that parent has responsibility for the day-to-day care of the child. In general, when there is a final custody order in place, the order can only be modified (changed) if there is a significant change of circumstances making a change in custody necessary for the child’s well-being.

Residency Restriction

Unlike most states, there is no hard-line rule about limiting the geographical area in which the child may be moved/residency pf the custodial parent. Generally, a parent who has a permanent order for sole physical custody (also called “primary physical custody”) can move away with the children unless the other parent can show that the move would harm the children. But it is not always clear whether a custody order is permanent or temporary, so what the law requires may be different in your case. If the parents have joint physical custody of the children and 1 parent does not want the child to move, the parent that wants to move with the children must show the court that the move is in the best interest of the children.

However, even if both spouses agree, if the move will impact the current custody situation, the parents will need new custody and visitation orders.


The primary factor a court must look at in determining the visitation schedule for a parent is what is in the best interest of the child.

Depending on the circumstances of the children and the parents, as well as the distance between the parents, visitation arrangements can vary.

California law promotes frequent contact between children and their parents and encourages both parents to work together for the best interest of the child or children, so most divorce decrees allow the parents to have the flexibility to change their schedule as needed to accommodate a child’s schedule for extra-curricular activities such as sports, dance, etc. So the main thing to keep in mind is that both the mother and father need to work together to make a schedule that is in the best interest of each individual child.