In California, joint custody means joint physical or joint legal custody. Joint legal custody is when both parents have an equal right to make major decisions concerning the child, such as decisions about their child's medical care, what school he will attend and religion he will follow. Joint physical custody is when the child lives with both parents, with California law determining the amount of time the child spends with each parent. Unlike some other states, California does not have a preference for joint custody, which means that California does not automatically presume that joint custody is the best decision for the child.
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When joint legal custody is awarded, both parents may make important decisions concerning their child. These decisions are described in California Family Code Section 3003 as "decisions relating to the health, education and welfare of a child," such as what school the child will attend and what religious training he will have. When parents have joint physical custody, both parents have frequent and substantial contact with their child, but the child does not necessarily split time equally between the parents. California Family Code Section 3004 requires each parent to have significant periods of physical custody of their child, with time shared in such a way that frequent and continuing contact with both parents is assured.
Who Can File
In California, either parent can file for custody. If the other parent has not yet filed for custody and you have an existing family law case, you must fill out a Request for Order form asking for custody or the visitation orders you want. If there is not already an open case, you must fill out a Petition for Custody and Support of Minor Children form to ask for child custody and the visitation orders you want. The parent who files for custody must serve the other parent with the appropriate paperwork, in accordance with court guidelines. If you have an open case, you must also serve forms FL-320 and either FL-330 or FL-335. If you do not already have an open case, you must also serve forms FL-210, FL-270, FL-105 and FL-115. If the other parent files for custody first and seeks sole custody, you must indicate in your response that you are seeking joint custody by filing either the Responsive Declaration to Request for Order form or the Response to Petition for Custody and Support of Minor Children form.
The courts encourage parents to come up with a parenting plan on their own that describes how they will divide their time and responsibilities for taking care of the child. It may include an allotment to each parent of days, weekends, holidays or vacation time to spend with the child, pick-up or drop-off times, limits on travel, counseling and treatment services. If you agree on a parenting plan, the court will likely approve it. If you cannot agree on a parenting plan, you will likely be ordered to attend child custody mediation where you will meet with a family court services professional, also known as a "child custody recommending counselor," who will attempt to help you reach an agreement. If parents cannot agree to a parenting plan, the matter will be scheduled for a hearing where a judge will make the decision.
In the Best Interests of the Child
When parents cannot agree, the court will decide which custody arrangement is in the best interests of the child. The judge will look at many factors to determine if joint custody is in the best interests of your child, including the health, safety and welfare of your child, any history of abuse by a parent and the nature and amount of contact with both parents. Once the court orders a custody arrangement, it can be modified at a later time if circumstances substantially change. What constitutes a substantial change is determined by the court; however, common examples include a parent's change in income, loss of employment or relocation.