Child custody and visitation in California divorce

In California, there are several aspects to the care and control of your child.

The first is custody, and there are two kinds: physical and legal, and for each there are two options – joint and sole custody. Physical custody is where your child lives. If your child lives with you and your ex, then you will have joint physical custody, even if one parent just has one or two nights a month. Only if one parent has a very limited amount of time with your child will one parent have sole physical custody.

Many parenting plans (custody and visitation orders) have a designation of “primary custodial parent,” which is commonly referred to as the parent that has more time than the other. Some parents are adamant that they want this designation. Legally, however, there is no significance to this term. It means nothing, and in my opinion is a potential point of contention that should be eliminated in agreements and orders.

The other aspect is legal custody. Legal custody is the responsibility for the decisions regarding the health, welfare, and education of your child. In the vast majority of cases, this will be joint instead of sole custody, unless, again, one parent is simply absent from the child’s life. Legal custody means that you have to make joint decisions with your co-parent regarding your child’s education (public versus private school? Religious training?), health (surgery? braces?), and can even encompass things such as haircuts (shaved heads and spiked designs come to mind), piercings (sometimes ears, but more often eyebrows and belly buttons), and tattoos.

A common desire by some parents is to simply eliminate them from their child’s life much as they are eliminating the other parent from their life. This is not likely to happen. If a parent wants to be involved, even intimately involved, with their child, then that is to be encouraged. It is understandable that one parent may want to put some distance between themselves and their ex, but the legal reality is that if you have a child with someone, then your life is going to be entangled with the other parent until that child is an adult, and often beyond that.

UPA: Paternity action in California

UPA stands for Uniform Parentage Act, and is the name of the case when you have a child outside of marriage. Commonly called paternity cases, this is the way you formally and legally establish the parents of a child. Generally the father is the one thought of in these cases, but in a UPA case, both mother and father are determined. Either parent may bring a paternity case, and upon the establishment of parentage, both rights and responsibilities attach.

Once it is determined that you are a parent of a child, you are required to support that child financially. You are also entitled to parenting time (visitation) with the child, subject to the best interests of that child (for example, you are entitled to parenting time unless the time would endanger the child’s welfare, such as if you are ingesting illegal substances at the time). This responsibility lasts, legally in California, until that child is 18 and graduated from high school, to a maximum age of 19.

What?

The court’s jurisdiction over a child lasts until age 18 for custody and visitation. At age 18, the court can no longer order a child to visit with either parent. For purposes of child support, however, the obligation lasts until your child graduates from high school, up to the age of 19. So if your child turns 18 in January, then graduates in June of the same year, then you pay support until June. If your child graduates in June and turns 18 in October a couple months later, then the support can last into college. If you have a child who turns 19 in April before graduating in June, then support will last until your child’s birthday in April. Perhaps that was a longer explanation than necessary, but at least now you get it (hopefully!).

A UPA case cannot handle, however, issues around your relationship that do not have to do with the child. For example, a UPA case can resolve issues surrounding pregnancy and birth expenses, but cannot resolve issues, for example, around the return of property or disposing of joint assets (such as a car or house). The court will only get into that with married couples. If you have to go to court on issues of property division with someone to whom you are not married, then you have to go to small claims court. Obviously, too, there is no spousal support (alimony) in a UPA case.

Secrets of winning child custody in California

I have many clients that come into my office and say they “want custody” of their children.  What does this mean in a California divorce or paternity case? Most often, it doesn’t mean what the client thinks it means.

In California, there are two kinds of custody: physical and legal.  Physical custody involves where your children live.  If they live with both parents, as in most cases, then custody is shared jointly.  In the case where one parent is not involved at all with the children or has domestic violence or substance abuse issues, then one parent may have sole physical custody.  The norm is shared joint physical custody.  Legal custody involves which parent has the right to make the decisions about your children’s health, education and welfare.  Again, this is generally joint except in the instances mentioned above.

What most clients are talking about when they say they want custody is the parenting plan.  This is the schedule of when your children will be with which parent.  I am often asked what a “normal” schedule is, but the reality is that schedules vary as much people do!  The important part of creating a parenting plan is to keep your children’s needs in the forefront of your mind.  They are adjusting, too, and the transition is difficult on everyone.

Second, be reasonable.  You may despise your ex, but that doesn’t give you the right to cut him or her out of your children’s lives – they remain a parent even though they are no longer your spouse.  A judge will frown on an unreasonable request made for no good reason.

Third, pick your battles.  Remember the adjustment period?  Well, that often translates into dropping grades, acting out, misbehaving, sleep problems, and overall a difficult mood or behavior from your children.  This doesn’t mean it’s all your ex’s fault, and it’s not your fault, either.  It’s just a natural part of the process.  Now, if your spouse is acting inappropriately, such as not properly feeding or dressing/grooming your children before school or harming them, then you should see the judge immediately.  But normal acting out in a divorce is, well, normal.

Finally, remember that it will pass.  At some point the custody fight will end and you will settle into a routine.  I mean, you can fight until your children are 18, but do you really have the time, money and energy to do that to yourself and to your children?  The sooner you can get to that normalcy, the better for everyone.

Trying to prove your ex is crazy? It all starts with you

It’s not infrequent that I have a client who says their ex is completely crazy.  Often they are correct, though just as often my client also has a little bit of the crazy – after all, they were married!  In truth, everyone is a little crazy, at least on occasion, in a divorce.  The key is tempering it when you need to, which is something not everyone can do.

When you’re trying to prove to the judge or court that your ex is the one who is making up lies, exaggerating, and generally trying to hurt you and/or drag your name through the mud, you have to keep several things in mind or you will not be successful.

  1. The judge has a very limited time with you, so s/he has to make quick decisions based on very little information.  The judge, remember, knows nothing about you, your ex, your past, your history, or anything other than what is before the court and what you manage to convey in a short hearing.
  2. Most examples and instances of unreasonable behavior are difficult, if not impossible to prove because there is no outside evidence and it comes down to he said-she said.  The judge has no idea who to believe in those circumstances, so it’s up to you to prove that you are the credible one.
  3. When you start before the court, you and your ex are on equal footing.  If you want to show that your ex is unreasonable, then you have to work extra hard to appear as reasonable as you possibly can.  If you both act unreasonably, then the judge puts you both in the same category, so your pleas that your ex is really the one with the problem will fall on deaf ears.
  4. Proving you are credible, and thus the one to be believed, can be harder than you think it is.  You have to be absolutely truthful with the court – which means no half-truths, no misleading comments, and being up-front and providing relevant information when appropriate, even if not asked.  It also means following ALL – yes, all – court orders to the letter, even if you don’t like them, don’t want to, or are trying to bury your head in the sand, hoping it will go away.
  5. If you are able to do all of these things, and convince the judge that you are the one that is credible, reasonable, and responsible, then you can start to make headway against your unreasonable ex.
  6. If you fail to show the judge that you are reasonable, then it takes far longer to dig yourself out of the hole with the judge than it would have to just behave in the first place.

Signs your spouse is considering divorce

It is not uncommon for one spouse to be surprised, blindsided even, by the divorce filing of their spouse.  Often, though, the surprised spouse can look back in hindsight and see the signs.  Here are some:

  1. A new vocabulary.  If your spouse starts saying words like “custody” or “community property,” “date of separation” or “dissolution” even (and these terms may not be in the context of your marriage, but may be dropped in conversation about someone else, for example), then this may be a sign s/he is talking to a divorce attorney, or at least gathering information.
  2. Shifting of accounts or money.  If your spouse suddenly wants to move money around, it may be a sign of impending division.
  3. Changes in his or her relationship with family members.  If your spouse has been estranged from her mother during the marriage and now they’re tight, it may be because the rift was due to the marriage.  Now that it’s ending, the rift is healed…you just don’t know it yet.
  4. Super Parent, or changes in parenting.  A spouse getting a divorce may suddenly become super-parent, trying to establish a pattern of caring for children when that wasn’t necessarily the case before.  Your spouse may be setting the stage for the impending custody battle.
  5. Sudden reduction in work hours, overtime, or business.  Many spouses, in the face of paying child or spousal support, find themselves with less work, business, or overtime, and sometimes bosses are complicit with this temporary reduction to avoid higher support amounts.
  6. Secret conversations.  Catching your spouse spending money or talking to someone on the sly may not mean an affair – it may be an attorney or s/he may be talking to others about you.

Divorce is difficult in the best of circumstances.  If you keep your eyes and ears open, though, you may be able to avoid being taken by surprise.

Changing child custody and visitation after the divorce is final

So, you got divorced a year ago…or two or five or ten years ago, and you want to make a change to your custody plan. Called a “post-Judgment modification,” it frequently comes up, especially when custody arrangements were made when children were little…and now they’ve grown. Extra-curricular activities, changes in residence or school, and gradual agreed-upon modifications in the custodial plan can cause problems when there’s a disagreement down the road. Or, common too is when the custodial plan just isn’t working.

I frequently get questions about problems with child custody and visitation after a couple has gotten a divorce, or completed their paternity suit and gotten a Judgment. One parent is constantly late or absent, one parent keeps changing the parenting plan, or one parent has a new boyfriend or girlfriend, and the new significant other is causing problems, or there is some problem with the child that one parent thinks is the other parent’s fault.

The answer is that there is a solution to these issues. Once your divorce is completed, or you have a Judgment, any of your orders can be modified upon a showing of a “change in circumstances.” A change in circumstances is some change from the time of your divorce/Judgment that has caused the problem. It could be a work schedule change, a new partner in your ex’s life, a change in residence, a change in the child’s school performance or behavior, or just a change in the situation. Most courts are pretty lenient when it comes to what kind of change is required.

But you do have to file a motion with the court if you can’t get an agreement with your ex about the change. I always recommend starting the easy way, which is sending a letter or email about the change you want, why you want it, and what steps you will take if the ex doesn’t agree. The steps you take may include going back to court, and you have to make that decision before you put it in writing.

If you have been through a divorce, you probably know how tough the court system can be on your wallet, your nerves, and your relationship with your ex, so think hard about whether you want to open up that can of worms. A qualified attorney can help you to assess the pros and cons of each option, and which would be the best for you and your family. If the situation isn’t working, get the advice you need to remedy the situation.

Divorced with kids headed back to school? Tips to avoid craziness with your ex

The most important tip to highlight is a critical concept for ALL divorced and divorcing parents:  Do not use your child as a messenger.  In general, involving your child in your divorce or in your relationship with your ex in any way is severely damaging to the child.  Many courts even say that giving your child a note to give to your ex is a no no.  I mean, really, in today’s world, just send an email!  In addition, email provides you with a record so the other parent can’t say, “I never got it.”

Another issue that comes up is the activities, homework, excursions, practices, and myriad of other things that parents want and need to know about a child’s school.  Whn you have one parent who is “primary,” sometimes that can mean that the other parent gets left out of the loop.  I mean, if you only see your child every other weekend, then it can be tough to keep up on homework and teachers.  Especially since you may be focused on maximizing the time and not focusing on things like homework.

So we try to put in place provisions to ensure that both parents are actively involved with the child’s school.  This can place a burden on the ‘primary’ parent, but it’s a burden that’s in the best interests of the child and well worth the effort.

We used to suggest creating a notebook – just a spiral bound notebook that passed back and forth between the houses – that kept track of homework, permission slips, activities, etc.  I still think it’s a good idea, but perhaps a quick email is better – that way we avoid the child as a messenger.  One way to systemize this is to send a weekly email – it doesn’t have to be long or overly wordy – but it should include any and all information the parent writing it would want to know about the child’s school (homework, notices, upcoming events, school pictures, field trips, expenses) if the shoe were on the other foot.  It can be a simple list.

To avoid drama and arguments, you can exchange your child at school.  First, exchanging at school (after school, for example) instead of at the other parent’s house, can be a great way to avoid conflict between the parents.  This takes away all interaction at the exchange, so there’s no chance for fighting.  Second, there is no inconvenience to one party if someone is late or the schedule changes, since only one parent is involved and the focus is on retrieving the child.  Third, if you have trouble with fights at school activities, then there is a solution:  If you have a child with activities, and you and your ex can’t be in the same football-field-sized area together without causing a scene, here are some suggestions:

  1. If the practice or game is during your custodial time, you can attend.  If not, you need to avoid it.  This is not always possible, so…
  2. Generally activities have practices and games/events.  Either pick days (Mom can attend events – whatever they are – on Wednesdays, and Father on Tuesdays) or you can alternate events (Mom can go to the game on 9/10, but Dad can go on 9/17).  Obviously, this takes some planning, but isn’t it worth it if it (a) keeps your child out of your arguments, and (b) keeps both parents involved in your child’s activities?
  3. Alternate activities.  Many children are involved in a number of activities, and sometimes one parent gravitates toward one, while another parent gravitates toward another.  Mom may be an assistant soccer coach, so she get to attend all those functions, while Dad is keen on photography, so he spends time working on that and attending those shows and events.
The important thing to remember is to keep your child away from the conflict and to be present at their activities.  Sometimes it’s just the way it is, when parents can’t get along, but the parents have to acknowledge this and work to find a way around it that doesn’t hurt their children.  If you keep your eye on what’s important – the health and well-being of your child, then you’ll be able to find a solution to any problem.
What has been your biggest concern about your kids going back to school this year?
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