The Child Custody Laws in California

Understanding the State's Rules and Regulations

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If you live in California and have experienced a breakup where there are minor children involved, it is important to get a handle on child custody laws in the state. Perhaps you and your ex split up a long time ago but have had major life changes that have led you to want to renegotiate custody. Or one of you may be planning to move or have personal problems that will interfere with raising a child. Perhaps the child has expressed a desire to live with one parent full time and not the other.

California family courts consider a number of factors before granting a parent either sole custody or joint custody, but parents who wish to file for child custody in California should first become familiar with the laws in the state.

Factors Considered

When deciding custody, family courts consider several factors. They include the best interests of the child; which parent is more likely to encourage frequent visits with the other parent; the child's wishes, which are only considered if the child is of a certain age and maturity level (generally over age 12); a history of domestic violence by either of the parents; or a history of drug use.

Parent v. Third Party Custodian

A California court will grant custody to a third-party—a non-parent—if it decides that the child will be in danger or subject to harm in the care of a parent and that granting custody to a third-party custodian will serve the best interests of the child.

Drug Testing 

A California family court can order a parent or third party seeking custody or visitation of a child to undergo a drug test for illegal drug use, prior to making a custody determination. However, a positive result will not necessarily mean that the parent will not be granted custody, but it will be considered as a factor along with other evidence of the parent or third party's character.

The court will also consider a drug conviction in the past five years or evidence of frequent drug use before making a determination about custody and/or visitation.

Domestic Violence

In California, if a parent has a history of domestic violence against the child's other parent, the child, or the child's siblings, the court would prefer not to grant custody to that parent. However, a court will consider the following:

  • Whether the accused parent has successfully completed a batterer's treatment program
  • Whether the accused parent has successfully completed a parenting class
  • Whether there is an order of protection in place, to protect the victim
  • Whether the accused has committed any further acts of domestic violence

The California family courts prefer to offer shared custody to both parents because the court deems joint custody to be in the best interests of the child. For more information about child custody in California, consult with a qualified attorney in the state or read the California Family Code.