Rights of Parents With Sole Physical Custody in California

By Victoria McGrath

Father and son on floor with laptop computer and toys

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California courts can award sole physical custody to one parent or joint physical custody to both parents, based on the best interest of the child. The California Family Code does not favor either joint or sole custody. In California, sole physical custody is also called primary physical custody. Sole physical custody includes the right to control the child's whereabouts, housing arrangements, school enrollment, after school care, medical and dental appointments, holiday and vacation plans. However, sole physical custody does not automatically give the parent sole legal custody, which is the right to make all critical decisions over the child's life. Sole legal custody would need to be included in the custody order. The court order should outline each parent's child custody or visitation rights.

Custodial Parent and Noncustodial Parent

California courts can order sole physical custody and sole legal custody, or sole physical custody with shared legal custody. A parent with sole physical custody has a right to collect child support from a child's noncustodial parent, regardless of whether they still share legal custody. The noncustodial parent still maintains the right to communicate with the child on a frequent basis as a result of his court-approved visitation. The noncustodial parent can lose these parental rights in certain situations, for example, due to a prolonged absence from the child's life or child abuse.

Sole Physical Custody With Sole Legal Custody

A parent with sole physical custody and sole legal custody holds exclusive rights to physically take care of the child and to legally make critical decisions that effect the child's safety, health and welfare. The court must consider the best interest of the child before it awards sole physical custody or sole legal custody to one parent. Once the court awards sole physical custody to one parent, that parent has the right to control the physical care of the child without the need to consult the other parent. Once sole legal custody is ordered to one parent, that parent also has the right to make all other decisions over the child's life, without the other parent's approval.

Sole Physical Custody With Shared Legal Custody

Sole physical custody with shared legal custody presents more challenges than sole physical custody with sole legal custody. If a parent holds sole physical and legal custody, he never needs to seek the other parent's approval before making a decision about the child's living arrangements, school enrollment, educational plans, medical treatment or religious instruction. If a parent possesses only sole physical custody, the shared legal custody between both parents might affect the sole physical custody. For example, a mother with sole physical custody has the right to enroll her child in a religious preschool for child care. However, the father with shared legal custody can raise objections over the religious instruction at the school. Part of legal custody includes the right to make decisions over religious upbringing.

Sole Physical Custody and Child Visitation Rights

Under sole physical custody, the child resides with one parent all the time. That parent has the right to decide the child's residence and daily routine. The custodial parent can generally travel in state, out-of-state and out of the country with the child, unless restricted by a court order. A noncustodial parent is limited to approved court visitation. In California, a noncustodial parent does have a right to frequent contact and regular visitation with the child. A court may order supervised visitation or no visitation under extreme circumstances of abuse or abandonment. The decision must always be made in the best interest of the child.