Between school, play, chores, and extracurricular activities, kids are a busy bunch. Which means that when it comes to divorce, it can sometimes be tricky for California courts to divide a child’s time exactly equally between parents—even when both are evenly qualified.
That’s why, in California, it’s common for judges to assign one parent to be the child’s primary residence parent, while awarding the other ample parenting time in the form of visitation.
Visitation is an essential part of custody, and parental rights. It ensures each parent has access to their child, and that both can continue strengthening that relationship through in-person contact.
Here’s what you need to know about visitation in California, how it relates to child custody, and what the Maples Family team can do to help you navigate these important parental rights.
An Intro to Visitation in California
Visitation refers to the scheduled time that a noncustodial parent gets to spend with their child. It is also a major component of child custody; so much so, that you can’t really talk about one without discussing the other.
But what is child custody, exactly?
In California, “custody” encompasses all the rights, powers, and responsibilities that come with being a parent. Technically, someone could have custody over an incapacitated, ill, or aging adult, too; however, this concept is most commonly associated with children and divorce.
As a matter of law, only a child’s parents—whether biological, or adopted—have an inherent right to custody over their child. However, in some limited circumstances, the court might grant the child’s grandparents visitation.
When deciding custody for divorcing or unmarried parents, California will divide these powers into two major groups: legal custody, and physical custody. Here’s a closer look.
First, there’s legal custody. This aspect of custody deals with a parent’s decision making and legal authority, and enables a parent to make choices about their child’s:
- Schooling and education;
- Mental health treatment;
- Medical care (including doctors, dentists, and emergency surgery);
- Extracurricular activities; and even,
- Religious and cultural exposures.
Legal custody packs a lot of important rights under one umbrella. From large-scale decisions, all the way down to signing that field trip permission slip, legal custody puts you at the forefront of how your child will be raised.
On the other hand, is physical custody. And, like its name implies, this category of rights protects a parent’s right to have physical, in-person time with their child.
In legal speak, this time is called “access,” and it encompasses much more than just the occasional fly by.
Parents have a right to see their child—and not just briefly and sporadically—but long-term and extended. They have the right to live under the same roof as their child, where they can regularly interact, care for, and build the kind of a relationship that only an intimate home environment can really provide.
This is where visitation comes into play.
Because it can be so difficult to divide a child’s time exactly equally between parents, California courts will usually assign one parent to be the child’s primary residence, while awarding the other visitation. But how to decide who gets what?
The court makes these assignments by considering what is in the best interest of the child.
Best Interest of the Child
“Best interest of the child” is a legal standard that is applied for all decisions involving minors, and strives to choose an outcome that will serve a child’s long-term health and happiness the best.
Hence, when deciding who will be a child’s primary custodian, and who will receive visitation, some of the things your judge might consider will include:
- The child’s age;
- The child’s health;
- The child’s relationship with each parent;
- The child’s social and community ties;
- Each parent’s ability to care for the child; and,
- Any history of substance abuse or domestic violence.
As you can see, gender does not appear on our list of considerations. That’s because in California, custody decisions are completely gender neutral, meaning that the type of visitation order you receive will depend entirely on your merit as a parent, alone; not your sex (or sexual orientation, for that matter).
Visitation orders aren’t a “one-size-fits-all” kind of thing. Instead, these assignments will vary between cases, and are designed to work within your family’s unique circumstances.
To this end, there are four main ways California courts can assign visitation in California. These include:
- Scheduled Visitation. In this situation, parents have an order that specifies all the details of their division of time, including dates, times, drop offs, pickups, holidays, and other special occasions. This type of visitation is typically the result of contested divorce litigation.
- Reasonable Visitation. Here, a couple’s order is more open ended, leaving the parents to work out specific details, as needed. This type or visitation typically works best for parents who have a good working relationship.
- Supervised Visitation. When a child’s safety and/or well-being cannot be trusted to the noncustodial parent, the court might assign supervised visitation. In these scenarios, visits must be chaperoned by either another adult, or professional agency (depending on the circumstances).
- No Visitation. Finally, there’s always the option of no visitation. Here, the risks of harm to a child’s physical or mental wellbeing are so great, that the court is not comfortable awarding any type of in person time. In this scenario, the custodial parent would have “sole physical custody.”
In California, parents are always free to come up with their own custody arrangements, either on their own, or through mediation.
However, keep in mind that your parenting plan—including all decisions about custody, visitation, and child support—will still need judicial approval, whether agreed upon or not.
Once finalized, your custody agreement will be enforceable, and you will be expected to carry out your obligations, as outlined.
In practice, this isn’t always easy (no one said dealing with your ex would be…) But sharing custody doesn’t have to be as hard as you might be thinking, either.
To help your custody arrangement operate more smoothly, try to use some of these tips when interacting with your ex:
- Be polite and respectful.
- Be clear and specific.
- Stay on topic.
- Write down what you discussed, and share a copy with your child’s other parent.
- Keep a record of your visitation times, drop offs, and exchanges.
- Avoid talking about custody problems while under the influence.
- Avoid talking about custody problems while your child is around.
- Avoid casual small talk, text messaging, or other non-essential communication.
- Make sure you’re both present when discussing important matters with doctors, teachers, and other professionals.
- Do not talk badly about your child’s other parent to that child.
- Focus on what’s best for your child (not what you want).
If it helps, treat your child’s other parent the same way you’d handle a business colleague. This mentality will ensure that all your encounters stay short, sweet, and professional at all times.
In California, your attitude towards sharing custody can actually influence the division of custody. In some cases, a systematic failure to cooperate with your child’s other parent could actually result in the court awarding primary residence to the child’s other parent. So it’s best to keep things as civil as possible, at all times.
At the end of the day, if there is a legitimate reason why your custody arrangement is no longer working, then it may be time to talk to your attorney about modifying visitation.
Do You Need Help with Visitation in California?
As a parent, you want what’s best for your child, and turning them over to someone you no longer trust can be incredibly difficult. That’s why it’s so important to have a family law attorney you can trust. One who will fight tirelessly for an arrangement that’s in your child’s best interest.
If you have more questions about visitation in California, we want to hear from you. Call Maples Family Law at (209) 989-4425, or get in touch online, and together, we can find the custody order that’s right for your family.