How a Mother Can Get Full Custody of a Child in California

The law used to presume that mothers were the best natural custodians and caregivers of their children, and many times a mother could gain full custody of a child without expending any particular effort. That presumption is long gone from the laws and the court system, and parents who believe otherwise are often in for a surprise when they discuss custody with their attorney.

Mothers can still gain full custody of their children, but they have to work much harder to prove that this arrangement is in the children’s best interests. It is a good idea to work with a knowledgeable attorney and follow that attorney’s advice about what to do—and what to avoid—to gain full custody.

Joint Custody is Usually a Court’s First Choice

In most cases, there is now a presumption that a child benefits by having both parents involved in the child’s life. That belief is so strong that courts generally prefer to award custody jointly to both parents. This includes both legal custody, which involves the right to make decisions about a child’s education, health care, religious upbringing and other issues, as well as physical custody, which involves the child’s living arrangements. While it may not be possible for a child to spend an exactly equal amount of time with each parent, courts usually want to try to create an arrangement allowing both parents to share custody in some way.

To overcome this preference, a mother seeking full custody must be prepared to submit substantial evidence to show why a child would suffer harm rather than benefit by being in the custody of the father. It may be easier to obtain full physical custody than full legal custody. A mother seeking full custody should consider carefully the different responsibilities of each type of custody and consider whether she would accept an arrangement that provides full physical custody and shared legal custody. Even if a mother gains full physical and legal custody, the other parent may still have visitation rights.

Showing That the Other Parent is Not Fit

For one parent to obtain sole legal and physical custody, they must convince the court that the other parent is not able to provide the appropriate care for the child. Courts are generally more likely to award sole custody to a mother when there is evidence that the other parent:

  • Has committed domestic violence or has a history of child abuse or neglect
  • Is legally unfit to parent a child
  • Has falsely accused the mother of child abuse or neglect
  • Cannot provide a home that protects the child’s physical or emotional safety

Proving accusations of this type can be difficult and painful, so it is important to be prepared and to take steps to protect the child from exposure to excessive arguments and animosity. If a mother can demonstrate that the other parent has substance abuse issues, that can make it easier to persuade the court that the other parent is not fit to have custody, but that is no guarantee. An experienced attorney can help prepare effective arguments to show a court why denying custody to the other parent serves the child’s best interests.

When a Child Only Has One Legal and Biological Parent

In situations where a mother is not married at the time her child is born and no one has taken steps to establish legal paternity, then the mother automatically has full custody.  If the mother lived with a partner who acted as parent to the child but who did not adopt the child and who does not have a biological relationship with the child, that partner has no right to custody or even visitation.

However, if the partner was a registered domestic partner when the child was conceived or born, or if the birth mother filed a declaration establishing legal parentage, then the partner has some parental rights. Parentage can also be established by court order. While legal parentage does not automatically give a parent the right to custody or visitation, it does establish child support obligations.

Work with an Attorney Prepared to Advocate for Your Custody Goals

Custody is a complex issue full of nuances that can sway a court in one direction or another. The dedicated team at Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC has over 300 years of combined experience advocating on behalf of parents to help them prove why their preferred custody arrangements serve the best interests of their children.

For a confidential consultation to learn more about how to gain sole custody or fight another parent’s attempt to deny you custody, we invite you to schedule a consultation with our Certified Family Law Specialists and associates today.

Professional Legal Help

Our attorneys are waiting to help you

Our Locations

*We do not receive postal correspondence at this address. Please send any desired material to our Corona office for review and distribution.


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.