What is Joint Custody in California and How is it Different from Sole Custody

When parents are not living together, either due to divorce or because they never married, they need legal arrangements to specify their parental rights and obligations. In California, these are generally spelled out in a parenting plan. The most critical issues addressed in a parenting plan involve custody.

There are two main types of custody, legal and physical, and these can be authorized jointly or solely. What does joint custody mean with respect to legal and physical custody and how does it differ from sole custody? The arrangements can be different for each family, so your family law attorney is the best person to describe the specific details of joint custody in your situation. However, here are some guidelines about how joint custody generally operates in California .

Joint vs. Sole

In basic terms, joint custody means that custody is shared between parents and sole custody means that one parent has all the rights and responsibilities for that type of custody. Shared custody does not necessarily mean a 50/50 split. As long as both parents have a substantial percentage of custody, whether legal or physical, then that is considered joint custody under California law.

Joint Legal Custody in California

Legal custody refers to the ability to make decisions about a child’s life. This includes determining:

  • Educational issues—where will the child go to school? If the school recommends a gifted program or special education, should the child be moved to that program?
  • Medical issues—who will the child’s primary pediatrician be? Will the child receive optional immunizations? If the doctor suggests ear tube surgery, will you have it done soon or wait to see if the child outgrows the problem?
  • Religious issues—will the child be raised according to particular religious beliefs? Will they attend a church or receive religious instruction?  Will they be baptized or become a Bar Mitzvah?
  • Activity issues—what sports, musical lessons, or other hobbies and activities will the child be exposed to? Will the child take dance class or be on a soccer team? What if they want to intensify the activity and play on a travel team or compete in high-level contests?

Sharing legal custody requires communication and cooperation, which can be a challenge for many parents living apart. Sometimes it works best to split authority so that one parent makes decisions about certain issues while the other parent determines other issues.

Joint Physical Custody

Physical custody involves a child’s living arrangements, specifically, which parents they stay overnight with. When parents share physical custody, they may have a plan where they each have the child half the nights of the year, or their plan may call for the child spending a little more time with one parent, such as a 60/40 timeshare. For instance, the child might switch homes every week or every three or four days. Depending on parents’ work schedules or other issues, the parents or the court might establish a schedule where a child spends Monday through Wednesday with one parent, Thursday and Friday with the other, and alternates weekends. The arrangements can be very creative as long as both parents agree and the court finds the arrangements to serve the child’s best interests.

If parents cannot develop their own plan for sharing custody, then the court may impose a plan, and it is not as likely to coordinate with the parents’ or child’s schedules. Or, if the court believes that the parents’ inability to cooperate can harm the child, the court might award sole custody to one parent and grant visitation rights to the other parent.

California considers the percentage of time a child spends with each parent. Generally, an arrangement where a parent has a child for at least 35% of the time would be considered joint custody. If one parent had the child for 80% of the time while the other had the child for 20% of the time, the first parent would probably be considered to have primary or sole custody while the parenting time of the other parent would probably be considered visitation rights.

It is the percentage of time, rather than the label “joint” or “sole” that really matters in most cases. The percentage of parenting time not only involves the time spent with the child but also impacts the calculation of child support obligations.

Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC Can Help You Gain the Right Custody Arrangements

Parenting plans are supposed to focus on meeting the needs of the child rather than the parent, although the practical issues associated with a parent’s schedule do impact the child’s best interests. For the long-term benefit of your child, it is a good idea to develop realistic plans for custody that are tailored to your specific family situation.

At Holstrom, Block & Parke, APLC, our Certified Family Law Specialists and associates can work to achieve the right custody arrangements for your child. For a confidential discussion about how the details might work in your circumstances, contact our team to schedule a consultation.



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