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If you’re going through a divorce with children, you’ll need to determine where and with whom your children will live. A child custody lawyer can help you negotiate custody, either by agreement or in court. If you as parents can’t agree on child custody, a judge will decide for you. Continue reading to learn more about the process and costs of child custody cases in Los Angeles and California.

Types of Child Custody

Legal Custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make major decisions about a child's welfare, health, and education, including:

-where a child will go to school

-whether a child will engage in religious activities, and

-whether a child should receive medical care (except in emergency situations).

Joint vs. Sole Legal Custody. Legal custody can be shared (joint) or sole. In California, joint legal custody means that both parents share in the right and responsibility to make decisions relating to the health, education, and welfare of a child. Joint legal custody is very common in California. The fact that parents share joint legal custody, however, doesn’t mean they will share joint physical custody.

Sole legal custody means that only one parent has the right to make all major decisions relating to the child and can do so without the other parent's input. The fact that a parent has sole legal custody doesn’t mean that parent will also have sole physical custody.

Physical Custody. Physical custody refers to where a child will live after a divorce or separation. The parent with physical custody has the right to have the child physically present in the home. If a child lives exclusively or primarily with one parent, that parent is usually referred to as the custodial parent, while the other is the noncustodial parent and typically has visitation rights.

Joint vs. Sole Physical Custody. Joint physical custody means that both parents have significant periods of physical custody. If a child's time is divided equally—or close to equally—between the parents, they are sharing joint physical custody.

Sole physical custody means a child resides with one parent, subject to the court's authority to order visitation time with the other.

How Is Child Custody Determined?

In California, judges decide custody according to what is in the best interest of the child. To decide a child’s best interests, the court will consider many factors, including:

-the child’s age and health

-the emotional ties between each parent and the child

-the ability of each parent to care for the child

-any history of family violence or substance abuse, and

-the child’s ties to school, home, and community.

Legal Custody. Parents usually share joint legal custody, unless one of the following is true: the parents are completely unable to make decisions together

-one parent is deemed unfit

-one parent is incapable of making decisions regarding the welfare of the child, or

-it would be in the child’s best interests for only one parent to have sole legal custody.

Physical Custody. When deciding physical custody, courts will determine the child's best interests. In most cases, courts strive for equal—or close to equal—parenting time, because it’s usually in the child’s best interests to have continuing and meaningful contact with both parents. In other cases, sole physical custody with or without visitation to the other parent may be appropriate. For example, if a parent has a history of domestic violence or abuse, courts may order that all visits with the child be supervised by an approved third party.

What Goes Into a Custody Agreement?

In California, a custody agreement is referred to as a parenting plan. Generally, a parenting plan should cover physical custody (or time-share) and include a detailed schedule for when the child will be with each parent, including: where the child will be for holidays, summer vacations, and special days like birthdays how the child will get from one parent to the other (transitions), and who will pay the costs of transportation.

Your agreement should also cover legal custody and how you will make decisions about your child’s health, education, and welfare including:

-daycare and/or which school(s) the child will attend

-whether the child will practice a certain religion, and

-how decisions about medical and dental care will be made.

If you have questions, speak to a local family law attorney for advice.

The Average Cost of Child Custody Case in California

Each family is unique, and each custody case presents its own specific circumstances, which will play a major role in how long a custody case will take and how much it might cost. When parents agree on all of their custody issues, the total cost will be on the lower end. If parents can’t agree or have a prolonged custody dispute in court, the total cost will be much higher.

While we don’t have specific data on the cost of a custody case in California, we do know that in one survey, readers who had disagreements over child support and/or custody paid an average of $15,500 in total costs—including $13,500 in attorney’s fees and $2,000 in other costs.

Attorney’s fees represent the largest chunk of divorce costs, and attorneys in Los Angeles charge higher hourly rates, so the total cost of custody cases in L.A. will be higher compared to other cities across the nation.

To read more, see Avvo's free legal advice on California child custody.