Child Custody

Child custody” is a legal term with an unfortunate adversarial history.  It would probably be better if we reserved “custody” for the arrest and detention of criminals and didn’t apply it to the parenting of children.  Nowadays, the term “parenting plan” is much favored over the older term “custody and visitation.”  Nonetheless, in any divorce involving minor children, decisions need to be made and communicated to the court as regards the parenting of the children.


child custodyChild custody in California simply involves the designation of two labels: “legal custody” and “physical custody.” For each label, the child custody will be either “joint” (both parents) or “sole” (one parent).  It is of course important to understand the meaning of each label before coming up with a designation.  “Legal custody” refers to the right and responsibility to make decisions related to the health, education and welfare of the children. “Physical custody” refers to who the children live with and are supervised by.

The best way to deal with this (whether in or out of court) is first to focus on the development of a comprehensive parenting plan.  When this has been fully accomplished, then address the label designations.  Often the child custody labels will then be a fairly easy formality.  This approach reinforces the reality that the parenting plan is what is really important for the children and the parents.  The child custody labels are just a legal requirement – which many states are reconsidering.

The parenting plan gives some of the details as to how the parents are going to co-parent their children. It can be in greater or lesser detail. The less the parents are able work together collaboratively, the more detail is appropriate because less room is left for misunderstandings.  The cardinal rule for parenting plans is that they should be developed with the best interests of the children in mind.

The legal system strongly encourages parents to create their own parenting plan.  Parents have lots of latitude in doing so and their plan will rarely be second-guessed by the court.  If parents are struggling to agree on a plan, mediation is very often helpful.

Parenting plans normally include a regular schedule for time with the children; vacation, holiday and special day arrangements; communication agreements; child care plans and how to address challenges that arise.