What Does the “Best Interest of the Child” Mean in a California Custody Case?

What Does the “Best Interest of the Child” Mean in a California Custody Case?

When a California court needs to make decisions regarding child custody, the judge will consider multiple aspects of the child’s life. Ultimately, what the court decides or the parties agree to must be in the child’s best interest. If you are involved in a California divorce or other child-related case, you may be wondering: What does the “Best Interest of the Child” mean in a California custody case?

California Custody and Placement

When parents are involved in a California custody dispute, several issues will have to be decided. Essentially, these choices will concern how a child will be raised by and spend time with their parents. In California, the law states that it’s “the public policy of this state to ensure that children have frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage, or ended their relationship, and to encourage parents to share the rights and responsibilities of child-rearing” except “when the contact would not be in the best interests of the child.”

In California, there are two types of child custody: legal and physical.

  • Legal custody refers to a parent’s decision-making authority. This includes a parent’s right to decide about issues such as where a child attends school, who their medical provider will be, their psychological care, where they attend religious services, their travel, their extracurricular activities, and where the child will live.
  • Physical custody means a parent’s right to have their child with them. This type of custody may also be referred to as placement or visitation.

California Best Interest Factors

In some states, the law provides a single list of elements for the court to use when making a best-interest determination. By contrast, California has multiple statutes that relate to the best interest of the child standard.

State law says that when a court is issuing legal or physical custody orders, children’s health, safety, and welfare must be the court’s primary concern in determining their best interests. It also says that children have a right to be “safe and free from abuse and that the perpetration of child abuse or domestic violence in a household where a child resides is detrimental to the health, safety, and welfare of the child.”

When custody is at issue, the court must consider, “among other factors, which parent is more likely to allow the child frequent and continuing contact with the noncustodial parent.”  When a child has more than two parents, the court must “allocate custody and visitation among the parents based on the best interest of the child.” This allocation includes but is not limited to “addressing the child’s need for continuity and stability by preserving established patterns of care and emotional bonds.” Additionally, when making its best interest determination, “the court shall not consider the sex, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation of a parent, legal guardian, or relative…”

California law also provides a list of factors that the court must consider when determining a child’s best interest in a divorce or custody matter. These factors are as follows:

  • As indicated above, the child’s health, safety, and welfare are always considered.
  • A California family court will also review any history of abuse against the child, the other parent, their current partner, anyone the parent lives with, or anyone with whom the parent seeking custody has a dating or romantic relationship.
  • Whether the parent seeking custody has neglected the child,
  • The nature and amount of contact with both parents, and
  • If either parent has engaged in illegal drug use or the habitual or continual abuse of alcohol. California courts have the discretion to require independent corroboration of alleged abuse and substance abuse claims.

Under California law, if a child is of an appropriate age and “capacity to reason,” the court has the discretion to consider their preferences regarding custody. Additionally, a child aged 14 or older may be allowed to address the court regarding custody and visitation unless the court determines that doing so is not in the child’s best interest.

California’s best interest factors and other relevant laws are part of an overall effort to ensure children are placed in circumstances that support their well-being and parental relationships. Ultimately, the family court will consider these and other facts it deems important to help make sure that children are safe and healthy and that there is stability in their lives.

If there is evidence that a parent presents a danger to their child, the court is likely to limit their custodial rights. When both parents are safe and appropriate, the court will usually order joint legal and physical custody. However, joint legal and physical custody does not necessarily mean parents will have equal decision-making authority or divide their time 50/50. How custodial orders and visitation schedules look and operate will depend largely on the parties, their circumstances, and what the court believes is in the child’s best interest.

California Family Law Attorney

The California best interest factors and laws can be complex. If you have a child custody dispute, you will want to work with an experienced California family law attorney. Your family lawyer can help you understand and present the best interest evidence that will matter most to the court in your child custody case. 

The attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger are experienced California divorce attorneys who can help you during all phases of your divorce or child custody case. We understand how the best interest of the child standard works and can help. Our firm assists clients along California’s Northern to Southern Coast, including San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Marin, San Jose, Gold River, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura/Oxnard, and surrounding communities. Call us at 415-293-8314 to schedule a private appointment or visit our website.