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Child Custody In California When The Parents Aren’t Married

Child Custody In California When The Parents Aren’t Married

When a couple decides to part ways and has children together, things get complicated. Child custody lawsuits can come into play, and sometimes, there are worries from either or both parties on whether or not they are going to get their equal share in raising their kids.

How does child custody work in California when the parents aren’t married? This is often a question we get asked. Many people assume that things are different when the couple isn’t married and has kids, but in fact, things are the same. Here are the details on how child custody works in California, as well as what you can expect if you are entering or will be entering a child custody case.

How Child Custody Works In California

When it comes to child custody in California, there are some basic things you need to know. Child custody is separated into two categories: legal custody and physical custody. There are also visitation orders to be discussed, and there is a law that governs the custody and visitation decisions.

Legal And Physical Custody

Legal custody can be joint, where parents have equal rights and responsibilities for making decisions for the children or sole custody, where one parent has the right and responsibility to make the important decisions for the children.

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Physical custody defines who the children live with. Physical custody can be joint, where both parents share living with the children. Physical custody may also be sole or primary, when one parent has the children living with him or her most of the time. Sometimes, primary physical custody is given to one parent, but the other parent still gets shared legal custody, allowing equal decision making for the children.


When one parent has sole or primary physical custody, the children will have visitation rights with the parent who has the children less than half the time. Visitation rights can be as follows: visitation according to a schedule, reasonable visitation, supervised visitation, or no visitation.

Visitation according to a schedule means sharing time between holidays, special occasions, and vacations, as well as weekly scheduling. Reasonable visitation leaves the parents in an open-ended visitation schedule, but it can cause issues with the parents if they do not get along very well. Supervised visitation requires that the other parent, another adult, or an agency be present during visits, and it is common when the children don’t know one of the parents well. No visitation is ordered when fear of physical or emotional harm by a parent is present.

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How The Court Makes Decisions On Custody And Visitation

The law that the court makes custody and visitation decisions by says that the outcome must be what is in the best interest for the children, and the court considers:

  • The age of the children
  • The children’s health
  • Emotional ties between the parents and children
  • The ability to care for the children
  • History of violence or substance abuse
  • The children’s ties to the school, home, and the community

Summary – Child custody in California includes legal custody, physical custody, and visitation rights for parents, unmarried or married, and the court makes decisions based on the best interests of the children.

How A Child Custody Case Works

Many times, parents can actually write up their own agreements for custody and visitation, also known as parenting plans, without a need to go to court. The agreement becomes a binding and enforceable contract, so if one party does not follow, a court order is needed to give the agreement over to a judge. The judge sends you to a mediator who will step in to help, and if that still doesn’t create an agreement, you will meet with a judge who will decide custody and visitation.

To create parenting plans, you’ll start by filling out your court forms, which include:

  • Stipulation and Order for Custody and/or Visitation of Children
  • Child Custody and Visitation Order Attachment
  • Children’s Holiday Schedule Attachment (optional)
  • Additional Provisions – Physical Custody Attachment (optional)
  • Joint Legal Custody Attachment (optional)

Both parents will need to sign the Stipulation and Order for Custody and/or Visitation of Children. Forms will need to be reviewed by a family law facilitator, and you’ll make two copies of all forms for the parents, as the original goes to the court. A judge will then review and sign your signed copies and the original copy of the stipulation, and then you will file the forms with the court clerk.

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To make the parenting plan work, it’s best to always do what’s best for the children and make sure the plan is working for them. If the plan needs to change, make sure to communicate with the other parent, use a counselor, or go back to mediation, if necessary. It’s also helpful to use jargon like “the children’s mother” rather than “my ex” to always keep the children at the forefront of your agreement.

Summary – Parenting plans are a great way to settle custody and visitation rights without going to court, but if parents can’t agree, mediation and/or a judge will need to step in to make the decisions for them.

Get In Touch With Our Law Office For Help

Bruce A. Mandel is a Torrance, CA area family law attorney with over two decades of experience in child custody matters. He ensures that you are informed and aware of all aspects of your child custody case or agreement and helps you to achieve the outcome you are looking for. He helps with every aspect of child custody matters, including agreements, visitation rights, grandparent visitation, modification of orders, enforcement of orders, and decision-making.

When you need help with child custody matters, contact us now through our online form or call us at (424) 250-9130 to get started. Be sure to also follow us on Facebook for helpful posts from our blog and to stay in touch with us. We look forward to helping you!