Child Custody Attorneys in Petaluma, CA
If you are looking for child custody lawyers, our Petaluma legal team knows the anguish that parents go through. The owner of our law firm has experienced custody and visitation issues with her own children. This allows our firm to draw from personal experience and help guide you through these issues while “keeping your cool” and maintaining the best interests of your children.
If you are experiencing a divorce involving minor children, call our office today or contact us online to set up an initial consultation with an experienced Petaluma child custody lawyer.
What Can a Petaluma Child Custody Lawyer Do for You?
We strive to help you collaboratively solve custody and visitation issues while maintaining healthy relationships and protecting your children’s interests. But we also realize that sometimes collaboration is not an option. When that happens, our Petaluma child custody lawyers are prepared to aggressively litigate to protect your important legal rights under the family law code. We have the legal experience to help you with difficult visitation and child custody issues, such as:
- Establishing a child custody and/or visitation order
- Modifying a child custody and/or visitation order
- Divorce involving children
What Is the Difference Between Legal and Physical Custody?
California divides child custody into two categories: legal and physical.
Legal custody refers to the parents’ decision-making authority. A parent’s job is to take care of their child, and this often means making important legal decisions on their behalf. These decisions generally include how the child will be educated, what medical treatment they receive, and whether the child is raised within a certain religious practice. Legal custody is very important for many parents who want a say in how their child is raised.
California courts prefer to award joint legal custody. Under California Family Code Section 3003, this means that both parents have the right and the obligation to collaborate and make these decisions together, even after a divorce. In rare cases, a court may need to order sole legal custody, meaning that only one of the parents gets to make these important decisions. While not the preferred arrangement, sole legal custody may be appropriate when the court finds that the parents either cannot cooperate as co-parents, one of the parents is unfit, or it would otherwise be in the best interest of the child for only one parent to have sole legal custody.
Physical custody determines where the child or children live during and/or after the divorce. The parent with whom the child primarily – or sometimes exclusively – lives is referred to as the custodial parent, while the other is the noncustodial parent. Similar to legal custody, courts prefer to grant joint physical custody, allowing both parents to have a substantial amount of time with their children. If parents receive joint physical custody of their child, it is required that each of them allows frequent and regular contact with the other parent.
Sole physical custody is sometimes granted by courts for similar reasons as legal custody. If one parent is unfit or unable to care for the child and the court finds that it would not be in the child’s best interest to spend time with them, they may grant the other parent sole legal custody. This does not necessarily mean that the noncustodial parent will never be able to see their child. Rather, the court may order a “visitation” schedule, which allows short periods of time together, subject to any limitations the court sees fit.
How Are Custody and Visitation Rights Decided?
The rule of thumb in child custody cases is that the court will always try to do what is in the best interest of the child. Of course, parents often have different ideas about what this looks like. Courts presume that both parents deserve custody of their children, so unless proven otherwise, the courts will tend to grant joint custody as much as possible. However, in some cases, the evidence in the case will support the judge’s finding that one parent is just not able to care for their child as well as the other.
According to California Family Code Section 3011, some of the criteria the courts use to determine what is in the best interest of the child include:
- The child’s safety, health, and welfare
- Whether one parent has a history of abusing the child or the other parent
- The nature of the contact between the parents (e.g., how well they can get along to coordinate visitation schedules)
- Substance abuse by either parent
- Any other relevant factor
Clearly, there is no set formula for making child custody determinations. There is a common misconception that mothers are preferred over fathers in child custody matters. In fact, courts are legally not allowed to consider gender when making child custody determinations, nor are they allowed to consider race. In reality, courts must consider all other relevant factors based on the evidence presented by both parents.
Visitation and Parenting Plan Agreements
Many parents do not want the future of their relationship with their children to be decided by a judge, which is why they choose to create their own visitation schedules and parenting plan t agreements. The custody and parenting plan agreement is a written contract that sets forth both the schedule of parenting time (which may specify holidays with each parent) as well as the arrangement for legal decision-making.
When parents can reach an agreement outside of court, it is almost always better for both the parents and the children. Parenting plan agreements provide a level of stability and routine that children need to allow them to succeed. These agreements should be unique to the child’s needs, prioritizing their schooling, medical needs, extracurricular activities, and existing relationships with friends and extended family. They should not stretch your child too thin or cause too much disruption to their regular schedules.
Visitation and parenting plan agreements should be relatively detailed. For example, if they call for a pick-up and drop-off on a particular day, it should go so far as to state the specific time and location of the exchange so there is no confusion. Remember that these agreements become effective as court orders them or when they are signed, so if you fail to comply with the order, you may face penalties. With that being said, it is important to remain flexible in the schedule to allow for your child’s needs.
Can I Modify My Parenting Plan Agreement?
California family laws recognize that situations change over time. Visitation orders can become obsolete very quickly when either the parents’ or the child’s schedules or circumstances change. When these significant changes arise, consider discussing your situation with an attorney to find out how to request a modified visitation order. If both parents agree to the change, then the process is relatively straightforward; they can simply draft a new agreement and submit it to the court for approval. On the other hand, if one parent does not want to accept the proposed modification, the parent who wants the change must file paperwork with the court, and the court will ultimately decide if the modification to the order is in the best interest of the child.
Child Custody FAQs
What Is the Difference Between Legal and Physical Custody in California?
Broadly, child custody refers to all of the rights and responsibilities that a parent has in regard to their child. There are two types of custody in California: legal custody and physical custody. There are key differences between these types of custody that impact how involved a parent can be in different areas of the child’s life. These differences can be summarized as follows:
- Legal custody refers to how important decisions are made for the child. These decisions can include matters like education, religious activities, medical care, travel, and involvement in extracurricular activities.
- Physical custody specifies where the child will live most of the time.
Both legal and physical custody can be either shared between parents or granted to only one parent. Typically, California courts prefer to see parents share custody of their children, but all child custody determinations will be based on the best interests of the child (Section 3040 of the California Family Code).
How Is Child Custody Determined in a California Divorce?
In many divorces, parents struggle to reach an agreement regarding child custody. In these cases, the court will intervene to determine how custody will be split between parents. It is always initially presumed that shared custody is in the best interest of the child and bias will not be given to one parent over the other.
When determining child custody in a California divorce, the judge will consider what is in the best interest of the child. To determine what is in the best interest of the child, they will look at the following factors:
- The health, safety, and overall welfare of the child
- History of family abuse or substance abuse
- Emotional bond between the parent and child
- Ties to school and community
- Age of the child
According to Section 3042 of the California Family Code, the court may also consider the opinion of the child, as long as the child is over the age of 14 and able to maturely express a preference.
Can I Make Changes to My Child Custody Order?
Yes, it is possible to make changes to your child custody order. Sometimes, a change in circumstances necessitates a modification of the existing child support order. Perhaps the custodial parent moves too frequently, loses their job, or is no longer in a position to maintain custody of the child. In these cases, a modification of the child custody order may be necessary.
To make changes to your child custody order, you must first obtain court approval. A Request for Order form is used to outline your proposed order to the court and discuss why your proposed changes are in the best interest of the child. In some situations, it may be helpful to attach additional documents that support your case. After the court receives your proposed changes, the other parent will be served, and you can begin preparing for your child custody mediation or recommended counseling.
Do I Need an Attorney to Help Determine Child Custody Arrangements?
While hiring an attorney is not legally required in a California divorce, many divorcing couples seek legal assistance to uphold their interests during child custody negotiations. Your attorney will act as your trusted advisor and fearless advocate, working diligently to ensure that you reach the most favorable outcome possible for your case.
How Does Alcohol and/or Drug Addiction Impact Child Custody Arrangements?
Alcohol and/or drug addiction plays a major role in child custody arrangements. When determining child custody, the court will consider whether either parent struggles with alcohol dependence or drug addiction. Habitual or continual substance abuse may cause a parent to lose custody of the child. This is not to say that this parent will not be granted any time with their child, but their time may be limited and/or supervised, depending on what is in the best interest of the child.
Can I Force My Ex-Partner to go to Therapy?
Generally, no, you cannot force your ex-partner to go to therapy. In California, a psychological evaluation may be used to assess the mental health of either or both parents when determining child custody. To be granted a court-ordered psychological evaluation, however, the court must have a clear reason to question the health, safety, and wellbeing of the child with a parent. This reason can be related to substance abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, or criminal convictions, for instance. Your attorney can help you navigate the process of requesting a psychological evaluation for your case.
Contact a Petaluma Child Custody Lawyer
Our family law team knows first-hand how difficult child custody matters are. When you are going through a divorce or must address custody concerns with your child’s biological parent, your children are usually your number one priority. Our firm keeps the needs of minor children at top of mind while representing our clients. We strive for collaborative solutions to child custody matters, but when collaboration is not working, we fight on our clients’ behalf to preserve their relationship with their child. Contact us today to tell us more about your case and to schedule your initial consultation.