Many parents come into our law office with the request that they get “full custody” of their children in a divorce. In our experience, this usually means that their intention is to make sure they protect their relationship with their children, spend as much time with them as possible, and make decisions about their children’s welfare. The concept of “full custody,” however, is a little misleading.
In California, there are two types of custody orders: legal and physical.
Parents may share legal and/or physical custody, or one parent may have sole legal and/or physical custody. Final custody arrangements will be based on the circumstances of the case and what is in the best interests of the child or children involved. Parents can come to their own child custody agreements, subject to court approval, or a judge will make a decision at a court hearing (typically after parents have met with a Family Court Services mediator).
So, if you have the goal of getting full custody of your child or children, it is important to understand what this means and how it works in California. You’ll have to consider whether you want sole legal custody, sole physical custody, or both.
Legal custody refers to the right of the parent to make decisions regarding the health, safety, and welfare of the child. This might include choosing to enroll a child in a particular school, participate in a certain church, make decisions regarding medical care, or enroll a child in extracurricular activities.
Most courts start with the premise of joint legal custody. The goal is usually to keep both parents involved in a child’s upbringing, as this most often in the child’s best interests. Unless one of the parents is already doing things unilaterally, it would be difficult to get “full” or sole legal custody. However, it does happen, and the court can award sole legal custody to one parent if the other parent is unfit to make decisions for reasons of mental illness, drug or alcohol abuse, physical abuse, or abandonment.
Most people equate full custody with actual physical custody of the child. Again, that is very misleading. One parent may have sole physical custody of the child, but the other parent may still be granted visitation rights. As with legal custody, most courts will start with joint physical custody as a baseline. Unless warranted for reasons of domestic violence, abuse, drug use, or incarceration, the court typically awards joint physical custody with one parent designed as the primary (even if there is a 50-50 split).
The designation of primary physical custody can have serious legal consequences, such as where the child will be enrolled in school. Sole physical custody can also have a strong impact, especially if one parent is trying to move away.
Whether you will get full custody, meaning sole physical and legal custody, will depend on the circumstances of your case. It is rare for the court to award sole custody on both fronts, as keeping both parents involved in a child’s life is usually deemed to be in the child’s best interests. That said, you have the right to pursue full custody if you believe your ex-spouse cannot provide a safe and enriching environment for your child or children.
Since 2004, the Edgar & Dow has represented parents throughout Southern California in complex divorce and custody matters inside and outside the courtroom. There is nothing more important to our legal team than securing the results that help our clients and their families face more stable futures. If full custody is on your mind, do not hesitate to reach out to our firm. We can talk to you about what this means and whether it’s possible in your case. Because we have extensive experience in this area of family law, plus the determination to see a case through to the best possible outcome, you can rest assured that we will do everything in our power to help you achieve the custody arrangement that works for you.
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