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.

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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What happens with your child when your unmarried relationship ends? The California paternity case

A court case for a couple who is not married but has children is called a paternity, or UPA case.  UPA stands for the Uniform Parentage Act, which is the law that governs these kinds of cases. Paternity cases are generally 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.

In a paternity case, both responsibilities and privileges of parenting are granted/ordered.  Once it is determined that you are a parent of a child, you are required to support that child financially by working. 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.

The court’s jurisdiction over a child lasts until age 18 for custody and visitation purposes. At age 18, the court can no longer order a child to visit with either parent because that child is now an adult and not subject to the jurisdiction of the court. 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 in a UPA case.

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Dispelling the fairy tale: How kids benefit from parents who don’t “stay together for the kids”

This morning I posted an article from the Huffington Post about celebrities that made the decision to divorce when they knew they were pregnant.  I am of the opinion that children can sense and feel tension and hostility in the family, even if it’s a cool hostility.  And I am not alone: at the family law update classes I attend, research backs me up.  Children from intact happy households fare the best, but those in intact unhappy households fare worse than those in homes with divorced parents.  But I still often hear from clients and friends that they want to stay together until the children are in college, or at least until they are “old enough to handle it.”

But what is this teaching out children?  We are teaching them to put others before our own happiness, and indeed, that our own happiness does not matter.  In addition, we are over-emphasizing the importance of marriage and the “fairy tale” of a lasting relationship.  As was so eloquently put by another author on the Huffington Post, we teach our children, by staying together past our relationship’s due date, that being married and unhappy is more valuable than being alone and happy.

Is that really the message we want to send?

So, your spouse has hired a lawyer in your California divorce. What do you do? How to negotiate with OPC (opposing counsel)

One of the most terrifying things you can experience in a divorce is coming into court, expecting the hearing to be between you and your spouse, and finding out that your spouse has hired an attorney.  It can be scary.  Lawyers vary, too, in how they deal with unrepresented litigants.  I am always polite but firm.  I know one attorney who is outright nasty, from calling the other party names to threatening them to yelling at them.  You can’t always expect that an attorney is going to be civil…or even professional, unfortunately.

So, what do you do?  First, if you find yourself in the situation, and you want to or think you can hire an attorney, ask the judge at your hearing to continue (postpone) the hearing so you don’ t have to go forward and get steamrolled by the attorney.  Then get thee some legal advice and/or a lawyer, ASAP!  Generally judges will allow unrepresented parties a break if blindsided by an attorney at a hearing.

Second, if you get an attorney or other help or not, make sure you learn as much as you can about your case and the law.  The more you know, the better decisions you’ll make and quite possibly, the less you’ll pay for your attorney.  Nolo Press has some great books.   Third, remember that the attorney is getting paid to do a job, and is also a person as well as an attorney.  If the attorney is rude or says things you don’t like, it’s not because they have it out for you.  They’re doing their job.  They also may be a fantastic attorney, or they may not be so knowledgeable or experienced.  They may be having a bad day.  They may hate their client.  You just don’t know what’s going on in their head, but if you treat them like you would treat your ex (react emotionally, take offense to everything, or reject everything they say simply because they’re saying it), it’s not going to be productive.

Fourth, remember to keep your eye on the ball (and the bill!).  Don’t spend $1,000 on attorney fees over a $500 stereo.  If the other attorney has a reasonable proposal, don’t refuse to agree to it out of mistrust. I’ve had many clients insist that I draft settlement documents because they didn’t trust the other side.  In certain cases, this is appropriate since the other side might be sneaky. But in many cases, this just isn’t true and by having your own attorney prepare documents, you’re just upping the bill for yourself.

Finally, try to keep it together.  If you tend to be overly emotional, see a therapist.  Lawyers won’t help with this at all.  As soon as you can and as much as you can, try to view the divorce as a business relationship breaking apart.  This is the way the court sees it, so the sooner you get on board, the better.  This may see impossible, but it can and should be done as it will be better for everyone.

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A summer parenting plan: why the summer schedules can be more difficult than the holiday schedule

Aaaaah, summer.  It may seem far away now, but if you need to make a change, the time to start working on it is now.  The California family law court system works very slowly, so plan at least 3 months before you may need court assistance, if not more.  In Alameda County and Contra Costa County, courts are setting hearings out as much as 6-8 weeks.

Summer brings with it thoughts of sunshine, barbeques, vacations and…custody issues if you’re a family law attorney working with divorced parents.   Summer brings with it unique challenges for the separated couple that interrupt the schedule:

  1. Vacations: a regular schedule can get way off track once a two-week vacation is scheduled.  Anticipating this in advance is critical to avoid last-minute problems.
  2. Summer camps, sports camps, and musical camps: summer camps cause problems because it is often one parent who signs the child up, and invariably the camp is set for the other parent’s time. Again, this needs to be anticipated in advance to avoid problems.
  3. Summer school: Like summer camps, summer school invariably messes up both parent’s schedules, and the parent signing the child up often does so without the permission or consultation of the other parent.
  4. Child care challenges arising from the modified summer schedule: Summer schedules often vary from the school schedule to give the lower-time parent extra time.  Week-to-week schedules are not uncommon where the school schedule just provides for weekends for the lower-time parent.  This means that both parents have to adjust for the summer, which can be tricky when dealing with younger children (who need child care) and working parents not used to having a child home all the time.

The key here is ensuring that you work with someone who knows and can anticipate these problems ahead of time and provide for them in your parenting plan.  First, this means both of you have thought of the potential problem and talked out how you would deal with it.  Second, it provides for a solution in the event you can’t agree when the dispute arises.

Divorce and the sleepover with the new boy-/girlfriend: When is it ok when there are children in the house?

The divorce process can take years, literally. In addition, in many cases, the relationship is long over by the time the couple pulls the trigger on the divorce paperwork. In the Bay Area – in California – the waiting period is six months, which means that a couple cannot be divorced earlier than six months after the divorce Petition is filed. But some divorce cases – I had one recently out of San Ramon – can be resolved in a matter of weeks, and the paperwork is just a little slower. Other divorces – like one client I have from Oakland – can go on for years and years.

So, with those varying timetables, in many cases it seems inevitable that one or both parties will move on into other relationships. Also inevitable is what the parent is to do when faced with the dilemma of when to allow the significant other to sleepover or, perhaps more difficult, when to allow the ex’s significant other to sleep over. Here are some tips to consider:

1. Just because it’s too soon for you may not mean it’s too soon for your ex or your child(ren).
2. Making it a big deal makes it a big deal.
3. Try to understand your child’s point of view, and then determine how to react. Children can be very adaptable, so the change from dates to overnights may not make much difference to the child.
4. If you can, get to know the significant other. And don’t interrogate your child to do so. Simple, non-threatening questions about whether your child likes the significant other, and why, what they do together, how much time they spend together, and what they talk about will be sufficient. Don’t make it an agenda about your ex! Make sure you’re asking to determine the relationship the significant other has with your child, because this is the important part.
5. Take into consideration the age of the child, as well as the child’s maturity, always bearing in mind that it is likely to be much more traumatic for you than your child.

It’s inevitable that it will happen sometime, so you might as well make it an easy transition now. Plus, the better you react, the more likely your ex will react well when it comes time for you to have a sleepover.