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Joint Legal Custody in California 2024 – All You Need to Know

By Quinn & Dworakowski, LLP | Aug 20, 2023

Child custody determinations are a delicate time for many, as the outcome is likely to alter their family’s future. These cases can frequently become emotionally charged, even when parents are amicable and are working together in their child’s interests. In most situations, even contentious custody cases, both parents want a good outcome for their child, but they may simply not agree on what that is. It can be helpful to understand legal custody, how it compares to physical custody, and how this may affect your negotiation or litigation. A Child Custody Attorney in Orange County, CA, is an essential resource when working toward your family’s new future and protecting your children’s interests.

Understanding Legal Custody

Legal custody in California is the right of a parent to make important welfare and legal decisions for their child. This includes decisions regarding:

  • Healthcare and medical treatment
  • Education and extracurriculars
  • Religious upbringing
  • Living and housing

Legal custody is one part of custody determinations in California. There is also physical custody, which refers to where a child primarily lives. Both types of custody can be awarded jointly to share between parents or solely to one parent.

Joint Legal Custody

Generally, the state courts prefer to provide legal custody to both parents through joint legal custody. This means that both parents have a say in the important decisions in a child’s life.

When parents or the court create a parenting plan, it will outline:

  • What decisions parents must consent to together
  • When they can make decisions separately
  • How discussions regarding these choices are held

The court will also outline penalties for failing to gain consent from the other parent for these important decisions. Joint custody can become a problem if parents can’t reach an agreement on these issues without court intervention.

Joint vs. Sole Legal Custody

The court may award sole legal custody in extreme circumstances. This includes domestic violence cases where it is counter to the child’s interest and safety for one of the parents to have any legal custody. Sole custody means that one parent can make all important and legal decisions for a child without their co-parent’s input, regardless of the assignment of physical custody. This can make it easier and less contentious to make these decisions, but it also prevents one parent from having legal decision-making rights.

Benefits of Joint Legal Custody Arrangements

The essential benefit to a joint legal custody arrangement is that both parents are an active part of their children’s lives. Both parents are responsible for the decisions made for their children after the divorce or separation, which can help establish a healthier co-parenting relationship and help their children adjust to the changes in their lives. It also prevents one parent from making drastic changes without their co-parent’s knowledge.

Determining a Child’s Interests

Whenever possible, the court encourages parents to negotiate their own parenting plans. This gives parents more control over a schedule and the exact division of parenting time. If the parenting plan is in the child’s interests and not especially unfair to one parent, the court is likely to create a court order for the plan.

However, parents are not always able to agree on a parenting plan. In some cases, parents can go through alternative dispute resolutions to determine a parenting plan schedule, including mediation. If this doesn’t succeed, the family court will determine a parenting plan for the parents, based on the child’s interests, as outlined in Family Code 3020. The factors that a judge will review to determine a child’s interests include:

  • The child’s age, safety, health, and general welfare
  • The nature of contact and amount of time each parent has with the child, accepting certain circumstances such as a short absence where a parent tried to remain in contact
  • The child’s connection to their community and school
  • Each parent’s ability to care for the child
  • Whether either parent has an ongoing substance abuse disorder
  • Whether either parent has a history of abuse against the child, the co-parent, or anyone in the co-parent’s household

The court will then create a custody arrangement and parenting plan based on these factors.


Q: Can a Father Get 50-50 Custody in California?

A: California courts tend to prefer joint legal and physical custody whenever possible, as the court believes it is in the interests of a child to spend significant and meaningful time with both parents unless proven otherwise. This determination is not reliant on the gender of either parent. A 50-50 custody arrangement requires significant cooperation and work from both parents to achieve, so a perfect halfway split is often unrealistic.

Q: Do You Have to Pay Child Support If You Have 50-50 Custody in California?

A: Both parents have a financial obligation and responsibility to their children, and there are situations where support payments are necessary even when parents have joint custody. Child support payments are based on several different factors, including:

  • Each parent’s income and earning potential
  • The amount of time that each parent spends with and cares for the child
  • The child’s basic needs and unique financial needs
  • The cost of healthcare
  • Either parent’s other child support obligations

Based on these and other factors, there are many situations where parents with 50-50 custody are still required to pay child support.

Q: How Common Is 50-50 Custody in California?

A: Shared legal and physical custody is common, although one of the most common custody arrangements is shared legal custody and sole physical custody, with significant visitation rights for the non-custodial parent. The courts prefer that a child spends significant time with both parents, so they seek shared arrangements for this reason. However, this is not always practical for parents or children, especially if they don’t live close to each other. Even when shared custody is possible, an exact 50-50 split is rare.

Q: What Does Joint Legal Custody Mean in California?

A: Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make important legal decisions on their child’s behalf. When parents receive joint legal custody, both parents make these important decisions. This includes decisions about their child’s:

  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Extracurriculars
  • Housing
  • Religious upbringing

Parents must reach agreements regarding these major decisions, and when they can make separate decisions, in their parenting plan.

Negotiate a Parenting Plan With Legal Aid

If you are able to mediate a parenting plan with your co-parent, it is often easier on all parties and children. Contact the skilled attorneys at Quinn & Dworakowski, LLP, today to learn how we can help mediate a custody arrangement.

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