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Child custody refers to the broad range of parental rights and responsibilities that come with being a parent. While married, biological parents share these rights equally; however, that changes if you ever get divorced. When this happens, custody will need to be divided. 

This process is called a “child custody dispute,” and it will result in one of two outcomes. Either you’ll end up sharing parental powers as joint custodians, or else your judge will assign all the authority to one parent, alone, in sole custody.

While the idea of sole custody might sound appealing, don’t get too excited, yet, because it’s actually pretty hard to acquire. As a general rule, California judges are much more likely to assign joint custody, instead. 

That being said, it’s not impossible, either. 

Here’s what you need to know about getting sole child custody in California, and how the Provinziano team can help you sort through these important issues. 

What is Child Custody?

Child custody refers to the broad range of rights and responsibilities that come with being a parent. This includes the right to live with your child, care for them, and to make decisions about how they will be raised. 

While married, you, as parents, share these powers equally. Together, you work as a team to care for, and nurture your child. Neither of you needs the other’s permission in order to exercise this authority, and the court assumes that the permission of one represents the will of both. 

However, nothing says, “We disagree!” quite louder than a divorce.

Once you’re no longer together, the court can no longer assume that you two are of the same mind about your parenting directives. Hence, in order to ensure that both of you can continue exercising your parental rights, custody has to be divided. This arrangement will be outlined in a parenting plan for you, and the terms made enforceable as part of your final divorce order. 

So, to answer the question of how you can get sole custody of all these powers, we’ll first need to delve a little deeper into how, exactly, the court addresses custody in California. 

Legal vs. Physical Custody

“Custody” is a blanket term that encompasses the entire spectrum of parental rights and responsibilities. However, in reality, this grouping actually breaks down into two main categories: legal custody and physical custody. 

Legal Custody

First, there’s legal custody, which refers to the right a parent has to make decisions on behalf of their child. This includes decisions about things such as:

  • What medical and health treatment the child will receive (aside from emergencies). 
  • Where the child will go to school. 
  • What religious and cultural exposure the child will have. 

In addition, legal custody allows a parent to have access to their child’s medical, school, and health records, and gives them the authority to grant permission for more micro-level activities, too (such as signing that field trip permission slip your kid just gave you). 

Physical Custody

On the other hand, is physical custody, which refers to a parent’s right to have physical facetime with their child. However, this right includes much more than just being able to interact with your child for a brief, family outing. 

Instead, physical custody goes deeper, and allows parents the right to live with their child under the same roof, and to influence how they will be raised. 

Joint vs. Sole Custody

In a custody dispute, the court addresses legal and physical custody separately. Each of these main categories will be awarded to one parent, alone (as “sole custody”), or to both to share (in “joint custody”). 

To illustrate our point of how courts divided legal and physical custody, think of each category as its own bundle of sticks. In one hand, are all of the sticks that deal with decision-making (aka: the legal powers). In the other, are all of your physical custody sticks (i.e.: those dealing with living arrangements and visitation). 

During divorce, your judge can give all the sticks in both hands to one parent (and none to the other); split both bundles between both parents; or give one bundle to one parent, and the other bundle to the other parent. 

In real life, a split bundle represents joint custody, while a whole bundle represents sole. This means that there are ultimately four ways that custody can be split in California. 

1. Sole Physical Custody

In a sole physical scenario, only one parent has access to their child. This person receives all the sticks in the bundle, meaning that the child lives with them full time, and the other parent doesn’t have any right to access their child at all—even through visitation. 

2. Joint Physical Custody

Shared physical custody is much more common in California than sole. In this situation, parents share time with their child—though it’s not always a fifty-fifty split.

Since it’s difficult to divide a child’s time exactly equal between households, courts will generally assign one parent to be the child’s primary residence, while the other receives ample visitation. 

In California, it’s still considered “joint custody” if your split is uneven.  

3. Sole Legal Custody

Sole legal custody means that one parent has all the decision-making authority. Whether a large-scale medical procedure, or a second-grade field trip, they do not have to consult their child’s other parent on anything.

Sole legal custody is incredibly rare in California.

4. Joint Legal Custody

Unlike sole legal, parents in a joint legal scenario must consult each other before making decisions about their child.

Since legal custody can easily be shared (and doesn’t require the child to be physically present in order to exercise), California courts will almost always require parents to share legal custody. 

How Do I Get Sole Child Custody?

So how does all this work in the real world? How do the courts decide how to divide those stick bundles, and—more importantly—who’s going to get them? 

We’re glad you asked.  

Best Interest of the Child Standard

In California, all decisions involving minor children are made using the Best Interest of the Child standard. Under these guidelines, each potential outcome is analyzed based on which one would serve the child’s long-term health and well-being the best. 

And—in case you didn’t catch the subtle nuance there—this means that the court doesn’t care what you want. Its only interest is in figuring out which arrangement will suit your child the best, even if that’s at the expense of a parent’s wishes. 

Under the best interest of the child, some of the factors the court might review include: 

  • The child’s age
  • The child’s health and medical needs
  • The child’s relationship with both parents
  • Each parent’s ability to care for their child
  • Any history of abuse or neglect

In California, courts have long held that a child’s best interests are served when allowed to have a loving, healthy relationship with both parents whenever possible. This is great news for parents who are willing to share, but not so much for those seeking sole custody…

A parent who wants sole custody will need to show the court that their child’s best interest can only be served if allowed to have a relationship with one parent, instead of two.

And, in case you were wondering? That’s a hard bar to clear.

When is Sole Custody Appropriate?

Giving custody to just one parent essentially involves dissolving the other parent’s parental rights. That’s a pretty big deal, and will require a lot more than just, “Oh, I don’t like that person.” 

Instead, California courts will be looking for strong evidence that continued contact will harm the child. Generally, this includes things like: 

  • Abuse. This is more than just a physical wound. In California, domestic violence includes all types of physical or emotional abuse at the hand of a family member. 
  • Neglect. This includes failing to provide a child with proper food, clothing, medical care, shelter, and other essentials. 
  • Substance Abuse. A parent who is under the influence cannot give their child proper care. In addition, an altered mental state could potentially subject the child to harm.
  • Mental Illness. The mere existence of a mental illness isn’t enough to warrant sole child custody. However, if the illness causes unpredictable moods or behavior, then the court may consider sole physical custody.
  • Abandonment. A parent who has shown little interest in caring for their child cannot suddenly show up and expect to receive a share of custody, years down the road. 
  • Incarceration. A parent who is imprisoned cannot care for their child properly. In these circumstances, a court might grant sole custody to one parent. They might also require supervised visitation, (so long as it doesn’t harm the child).
  • Relocation. If a custodial parent wants to move outside an approved range, the court may grant sole custody, depending on the circumstances. 

Do You Need Help Getting Sole Custody in California?

While it’s uncommon for courts to award sole custody in California, it’s not impossible. Each decision will be made with a child’s best interest in mind, and in some cases, it might be appropriate to limit a parent’s authority. 
If you have more questions about how to get sole child custody in California,we want to hear from you. Call Provinziano & Associates at (310) 237-6179, or get in touch online, and let us help fight for the best interest of your child.