How to Obtain Legal Custody of a Minor Child in San Francisco, California, in a Low Income Family

by Cindy Chung
When parents cannot agree on custody, they may need to see a judge.

When parents cannot agree on custody, they may need to see a judge.

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A parent who needs a court order for child custody in San Francisco can file the paperwork at San Francisco Superior Court. The procedures and legal standards in San Francisco follow the California state laws with regard to child custody. Each parent should know the rights given by state law and may need to consult with a California attorney who handles family law cases in San Francisco. A low-income family can seek legal help through the court or a local nonprofit serving San Francisco residents.

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Significance of Legal Custody

In California, legal custody refers to each parent's right to participate in decision-making throughout the child's life. Legal custody often includes parenting decisions related to the child's education, health, medical choices and welfare. For example, a parent with legal custody can choose the child's school and make decisions with the child's doctor. Legal custody does not generally describe the child's living arrangements; rather, physical custody establishes where the child will live and who can spend time with her.

Sole Custody or Joint Custody

For each minor child, the court must establish a custody order that protects the child's best interests when parents cannot agree on custody. Under California law, the court must presume that joint custody — legal custody rights given to both parents — is in the child's best interests when both parents agree to the arrangement. However, California custody laws also establish restrictions on joint custody when family circumstances include a history of child abuse, domestic violence or other unsafe conditions. If one parent receives sole legal custody, only that parent has the right to make major child-rearing decisions.

Proceedings at San Francisco Superior Court

A parent can request a custody order in family court at San Francisco Superior Court. The type of court case depends on whether the parent has a pending divorce case or a pending case to establish the child's parentage. Alternatively, a parent can file a separate action to consider only the issue of child custody. The type of court case determines the court form required for filing with the court. On each form, the parent will generally have an opportunity to request legal custody by checking the appropriate box. The form will also ask whether the parent would like to share legal custody or obtain sole legal custody. In general, the other parent must get a copy of the filed paperwork and receive notice of any court proceedings. The parent requesting custody needs to attend all scheduled court hearings at San Francisco Superior Court until the court issues a custody order.

Legal Help for San Francisco Families

Parents with custody disputes often benefit from personalized advice given by attorneys who practice family law in California. However, not every family has the financial resources to hire an attorney. Eligible low-income families might be able to receive free or low-cost legal assistance through the San Francisco court or local organizations. The San Francisco Superior Court provides free information and help with custody paperwork through its Family Law Self-Help Center, which serves the public from a location at the courthouse. In addition, local organizations and nonprofits such as the Bar Association of San Francisco offer free legal clinics during which parents can ask questions and obtain referrals for pro bono legal services.