Written by attorney Paul Jimenez Ryan

Child Custody, Visitation, and Child Support In California

In determining child custody and visitation, California courts emphasize the "best interests of the child" and give priority to a wide range of factors before granting custody to a particular parent. Attention to the following pre-judgment factors determines who receives child custody:

· the child's age, sex, and mental and physical health;

· the parent's mental health and physical conditions (if any);

· emotional bond between parent and child, as well as the parent's ability to give the child guidance;

· parent's ability to provide the child with food, shelter, clothing, and medical care;

· child's established living pattern (school, home, community, religious institution);

· quality of the child's education in the current situation;

· impact on the child of changing the status quo, and

· any history of family violence or substance abuse.

Each of the above factors is assessed and can be further evaluated during custody mediation offered by the courts of California. The purpose of this mediation is to give parents a chance to resolve disagreements surrounding the parenting plan for their child/children. With an expert (a mediator) present, the parents can work to come to an agreement and write a parenting plan. If an agreement is reached, the custody and visitation order may be signed by a judge and enforced. In some counties, including San Diego County, this service is called “child custody recommending counseling" because the mediator (called a "child custody recommending counselor") can give a written recommendation to the parents and the court if the parents cannot agree to a parenting plan. The goals of mediation, as set forth by the California courts, are to:

  1. Help you make a parenting plan that is in the best interest of your children.

  2. Help you make a parenting plan that lets your children spend time with both parents.

In cases when the child is at a very young age, the court may grant custody to the parent who has been deemed the primary caregiver. With much older children who require a pool of enrichment in life due to the capacity to comprehend the new transition, custody may be granted to the parent who is best able to nurture stability in school, religious institutions, and standard of living.

Military members face the unique situation of deployment and this can have an effect on custody arrangements. Modifying the arrangement to give temporary custody to a relative is possible and the specifics of your case can be assessed in order to find the best possible placement for your child/children while the custodial parent is deployed.


If you and your ex-spouse can mutually agree on a parenting plan and visitation schedule, you can submit the visitation schedule to the court for review and approval. The mutual agreement will become an enforceable court order as long the agreement is within reasonable bounds. This is a favorable option due to flexibility in catering to the specific needs of your family, which can be better in terms of parenting and lifestyle for the child. In drafting a visitation agreement, be sure to include all exceptions such as birthdays, holidays or particular appointments when a child must leave school at an earlier time. Bringing this agreement to a mediator will aid in the process of finalizing the parenting plan. If a visitation agreement has not been drafted, a mediator can help construct a parenting plan to compliment the custody arrangement set forth.

Modification of Custody or Visitation Orders

Once a custody order is in place, there may be conditions under which one or both of the parents would like to change the orders specifics. If unable to agree to a favorable modification, the parent seeking a change just show a “significant change in circumstances" that would support a new order by the judge. This post-judgment standard is high, but ultimately was put in place to serve as an adjunct to the “best interest" test; essentially, keeping the health and welfare of the child at the center of the decision-making process. The “change in circumstances" standard requires a notable change that affects the child’s current position to a point where altering the permanent decree is necessary.

Additional resources provided by the author

San Diego Superior Court Website

Free Q&A with lawyers in your area

Avvo child custody email series

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