Divorce & Child Custody Family Law in California

By Heather Frances J.D.

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California spouses can agree to the terms of their divorce, including child custody, or they can allow the court to decide these issues for them. California permits spouses to divorce, based on the grounds of “irreconcilable differences,” which means the spouses simply don’t get along and cannot work out their differences, and California law provides a list of factors judges will consider when deciding custody between divorcing spouses.


California allows spouses to file for divorce once one of them has lived in California for at least six months, and California courts have jurisdiction to decide child custody issues if the child has also lived in California for six months. Divorce begins when a spouse files a petition for divorce in a California court. The petition must include basic information about the family and marriage, and the spouse who files the petition has the responsibility to serve the other spouse with a copy of the petition and other paperwork. California is a community property state, so California divorce courts divide property acquired during the marriage, except property a spouse acquired by gift or inheritance since this property is considered that spouse's separate property. Courts can also award alimony, called spousal support, to either spouse after considering numerous factors listed in California law.

Types of Custody

Courts award both legal and physical custody of a child. Legal custody is the right to make important decisions about the child, such as medical, educational and religious decisions. Physical custody refers to where the child lives and the day-to-day care for the child. Courts may award sole or joint legal and physical custody, or a combination of each.

Best Interests

When courts make their custody awards, their primary concern is crafting a plan that is in each child’s best interests. To do this, California courts consider a list of factors including the age of the child, emotional ties between the parents and child, any history of violence or abuse, and the ability of each parent to take care of the child. A parent’s gender is not a factor and no preference is given to a mother over a father.


California parents are typically awarded visitation, called “parenting time,” which is how much time each parent spends with the child. If parents agree to a parenting time arrangement, judges usually approve such agreements. Generally, California judges require parents to meet with a mediator to attempt to reach agreement before the court is forced to decide the family’s parenting time arrangements. If the court feels the child could be endangered by spending time with one parent, he can deny visitation to that parent or order supervised visitation where another adult attends each visit.