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How Child Custody Schedules Are Determined in Divorce and Paternity Cases in Los Angeles and Orange Counties

Learn How Family Law Courts in Los Angeles and Orange County Determine Child Custody


If the parents cannot agree on child custody, the courts are guided by two principles in fashioning custody orders. 1. Maintain the status quo. 2. Provide frequent and continuing contact by both parents with minor children.


1. The Ultimate Goal of the Family Law Court in Child Custody Matters is to Meet Two Principles.

The court must put the child’s health, safety, and welfare first. Second, unless it is not in the child’s best interest (for instance, in situations of child abuse or domestic violence), a custody/visitation order must take into account the statutory policy that children have frequent and continuing contact with both parents after the parents have separated or divorced. Family Code Section 3020(b) states that both parents should share the rights and responsibilities of rearing their children, except where the contact with one or more of the parents would not be in the child’s best interest.

2. Courts expect parents to make an honest effort to work collaboratively to create a custody schedule.

Custody litigation is disfavored as it is time-consuming and expensive. Contested custody litigation is also rarely best for the child. When one or more of the litigants uses the child as a tool to attempt to hurt their spouse, the child is not served. It is the policy preference of the California courts that custody and visitation issues be decided in a collaborative environment outside of the courtroom. This is not always possible, but parties should attempt to work with their spouse to establish a custody and visitation schedule that is best for the children and that will satisfy all family members.

3. Before a court hearing on a custody dispute the parents must participate in mediation.

All custody issues between parties, whether in connection with an initial temporary order, a permanent order, or a modification of an existing order, must be set for mediation pursuant to Family Code Section 3160. In the context of child custody all mediation is a private and confidential process by which a court employee mediator helps couples identify their issues and concerns and attempts to assist them to reach an agreement by working together and formulating creative solutions to resolve their conflicts amicably and peacefully. If the parties can agree on a child custody plan, the mediator then drafts a plan which memorializes the agreement of the parties and provides it to the court. If the parties cannot agree to a plan with the mediator, then in Orange and Los Angeles Counties the mediator advises the court that no agreement has been reached.

4. At the hearing the court will review the parties’ declarations and take testimony.

The parents’ declarations will be critical to the decision on child custody. You may wish to read the guide entitled How to Obtain the Best Possible Outcome When You have to Go to Court in Your Family Law Case which is linked below. The parents are also allowed to testify. In some cases the children may be interviewed by a psychologist appointed by the court. Children over the age of 12 may be allowed some input regarding custody.

5. At the hearing the court will issue a custody order and retains the ability to change the order.

The courts do not want a divorce to disrupt the lives of the children and take into consideration what parenting roles looked like before the parents’ separation. The child’s best interest is always the most important determining factor in child custody during a divorce, and the court will determine a custody schedule which minimizes disruption to the child or children. The court considers how parents divided responsibilities prior to separating and weighs it within the context of what is in the best interest of the child moving forward now that the parents are divorcing or living separately.
If the parents could not agree on a custody schedule and the schedule is ordered by the court, it is in each parents’ best interest to comply with the order.

Failure to comply may be grounds for the court to change the order in a manner which the non-complaint spouse dislikes. The court expects parents to put their children’s best interests first.
The court maintains jurisdiction concerning custody until the children turn 18. Custody orders are modifiable in the future. Modifying child custody orders will be the subject of a further post.

6. Can a parent change a custody order after it has been made by the court?

A custody order is like a law–like a speed limit or a penal code section. Until the court changes the custody order it is in effect. If both parents agree to change it or not follow it to the letter, there are no legal repercussions. The problems arise when one parent wants to change the child custody order, but the other parent does not.  Or both parents want to change the custody order, but each parent wants a different change.

If the parents cannot agree then one parent files a request for modification with the court. The other parent has the right to file a response to the request for modification. At the hearing the judge will decide what changes, if any, will be made.

Some of the reasons a judge will allow a modification to a child custody order:

  • Child’s needs have changed
  • Child is in danger (physical, emotional, sexual, or psychological abuse)
  • One or both parents’ living or work situations have changed
  • The non-custodial parent’s work schedule changed
  • The non-custodial parent moved closer to the other parent, or further away
  • One parent needs to relocate to a different county or state
  • One parent is being irresponsible (not getting the child to school on time, abusing alcohol in front of the child, etc.)
  • One parent refuses to follow the child custody order

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