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A breakdown of California custody arrangements

You've heard the terms regularly but never paid real attention because it wasn't relevant to your own life. Now, with a divorce looming, it's time for a primer on what the different forms of custody really mean.

A divorce is never easy but sometimes it's the best thing for everyone involved. How you work through the divorce settlement and custody situation will affect you, your spouse and, most importantly, your kids for the rest of your lives.

California has two categories of custody: physical and legal. The two are easy to distinguish, but it gets more complicated when it comes to sharing time and responsibility. You can't parent out of a book and the state has structured family law around that complexity, allowing for variables based on your unique and always changing situation.


Physical custody refers to actual living arrangements. The term applies to the parent who lives with the children.

Legal custody refers to a having a decision-making role, regardless if you live with your child or not. It means a parent must have input on important decisions such as schooling, health and general topics about your child's well being. Legal custody extends to lifestyle decisions like travel plans and vacations, extracurricular activities like sports and art, and even where the child (and, by extension, the physical custodian) may live.

Visitation is the co-parenting arrangement between divorced or separated parents. It refers to how schedules are shared and divided in relation to your child's time and interests.

Sole custody is when one parent has rights over the child. In the modern court, this is awarded when the other parent is deemed unfit. Otherwise, today's court favors joint custody.

Joint custody is when parenting is shared between parents. One parent may have physical custody but legal custody remains a joint effort, sharing and splitting decision making between both sides. For example, if a child has a head cold the guardian may keep him home from school for the day. If it requires a doctor appointment, both parents might be involved.


Visitation is what most parents think of when they hear of co-parenting. It means the parent who doesn't live with your child has to build time into his or her schedule. It's parenting by calendar instead of the household relationship you've had during married life.

This can be done with a strict schedule, such as every other week visits, or in something less defined and worked out between parents. If there are safety concerns, supervised visitation is a possibility. In certain situations, visitation can be prohibited.

Divorce is never easy. It's a major life change for parents, former spouses and children alike. While adults may see the light at the end of the tunnel, California's family court makes all decisions in relation to the child's best interests.

Family court can be the most toiling experience of the whole divorce process. The court will put parental skill, personal behavior and your child's well-being in the spotlight and adds tension to an already stressful situation.

If a marriage is dissolving but your relationship with your spouse is strong enough to settle with an attorney instead of in the courtroom, the damage and drama can be reduced.

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