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California parents put an enormous amount of thought and consideration when making decisions that will affect their children. Because of this, many divorcing parents spend a significant amount of time weighing the benefits of divorce before actually filing. One of the biggest topics parents tend to consider is that of child custody. Despite being used as a catchall term in popular media, there are several distinct forms of custody.

Legal custody gives parents the legal authority to make important decisions on the child’s behalf. This includes decisions about education, health and medical treatment, religious instruction and the child’s general upbringing. While it is possible for a family court to award legal custody to only one parent, legal custody is often awarded to both parents. This means that after a divorce both parents can continue to make important decisions regarding their children’s lives.

Physical custody is different than legal custody and refers to which parent the child will live with. This form of child custody can be applied in a few different configurations. A parent might be awarded primary physical custody while their ex is given limited custody rights or visitation. Joint physical custody is also a possibility in which a child lives with both parents for roughly equal amounts of time, but this is generally only possible when divorced parents still live relatively close to one another.

Physical and legal custody are separate from one another, so it might be the case that parents share legal custody while one parent has primary physical custody. It is also important for parents in California to remember that their child custody orders are not set in stone once the divorce is finalized. If a child or parent’s situation changes, then it is usually possible to modify the existing custody order to better suit one’s needs and the child’s best interests.