California Joint Legal & Physical Custody Rights

By Victoria McGrath

If you want to protect your right to joint legal and physical custody of your child, resolve any custody disputes in advance and present a detailed parenting plan to the court. After you file for divorce or legal separation, plan to meet with a family court mediator to work out the custody arrangements and schedule parenting time. In California, the judge approves joint custody when it is in the best interest of the child.

Legal Custody and Physical Custody

When a California court issues a child custody order, the judge makes a final decision regarding two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make important legal decisions for the child. These types of decisions concern the child’s education, religious instruction, medical treatment, mental health care and general welfare. Physical custody refers to a parent’s right to physically supervise and provide daily care for a child. This type of custody involves the child's residence, clothing, meals, transportation, after-school care and daily schedule. If a California court orders joint legal custody and joint physical custody, both parents have a right to make legal decisions for the child and to participate in the physical supervision and care of the child.

Joint Custody

Joint custody of a child refers to both joint legal custody and joint physical custody, and a court order that requires parents to share joint custody of a child typically includes both legal custody and physical custody, unless stated otherwise in the court order. In some cases, a judge orders joint legal custody and joint physical custody separately. When the judge orders joint legal custody, it means that both parents maintain a right to make major decisions regarding the child's education, health and welfare. When a judge orders joint physical custody, it means that both parents have the right to physically supervise and care for the child.

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California State Policy

The California Legislature promotes joint legal and physical custody of a child; it also supports both parents maintaining joint custody rights. This policy ensures that a child sees both parents on a regular basis, with frequent and continued contact. It encourages both parents to raise their child together after they become legally separated and divorced. This policy works well when both parents make a commitment to stay involved in the child’s life, be informed of daily activities and share physical supervision of the child. However, the policy presents challenges for single parents who end-up watching the child a majority of the time, without an equal commitment from a less-involved parent.

Court-Approved Parenting Plan

A California court does not start with the presumption that it must award joint custody to both parents. It allows the judge and family wide discretion to develop a parenting plan with a feasible custody agreement. If the parents agree to share joint legal custody and joint physical custody, typically, they draft a parenting plan and present it to the judge for approval. A well-written parenting plan outlines each parent's legal responsibilities and time commitments. It also includes specific custody arrangements, as well as weekly, holiday and vacation schedules.The approved parenting plan serves as both a guiding document and a legally enforceable custody agreement. Once a court issues an order for joint legal and physical custody, both parents must make legal custody decisions together and adhere to the physical custody arrangements.

Best Interest of the Child

If the parents fail to reach an agreement for joint legal custody and joint physical custody, and refuse to cooperate with each other in negotiations, the judge determines what is in the best interest of the child. Although California courts typically consider joint legal custody and joint physical custody to be in a child's best interest, one or both parents can lose the right to share legal and physical custody. In extreme cases of physical neglect, domestic abuse, substance abuse or child abandonment, a judge has the discretion to order sole legal custody and sole physical custody to only one parent.

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