California custody disputes are unique among legal proceedings in that they directly affect at least one party who does not have the right to participate in the proceedings: the child. In these situations, parents or other current or potential guardians dispute the child’s future while the subject of the disagreement has little to no say.
Children often experience the most serious impacts of child custody cases, but they typically have no direct control over them. (In certain cases, the Court has the power to appoint minor’s counsel to represent the child’s best interests. Courts may also allow children aged 14 or older to express their wishes with regard to custody or visitation, although the child’s expressed preference will only be one factor for the Court to consider in making a custody order.)
Decades ago, California legislators recognized the need to protect children’s interests in family law matters in light of their inherent vulnerability. In response, they instituted Sections 3011, 3020, and 3021 of the California Family Code, which require courts to prioritize the best interests of the child when making any custody determination.
California’s Dedication to Children in Family Law
Children occupy a unique position in family law matters. As minors, their legal parents or guardians have the right to make decisions on their behalf, from where they live and go to school to who they associate with.
This lack of legal agency makes minors vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Children have limited means to escape dangerous situations on their own, and remaining in a harmful environment can have lifelong impacts on their health and well-being.
That’s why California has prioritized children’s needs in all family law matters. Specifically, courts are instructed to make determinations regarding custody in accordance with the child’s best interests.
This is intended to prevent family law matters from being decided according to what is most convenient for the court or the parents. Simple convenience is rarely the best way to make decisions for the child.
For example, awarding sole custody to one parent may be more convenient to avoid the travel and scheduling necessary to follow joint orders. However, this prevents the child from maintaining a strong relationship with both parents. By focusing on their best interests, California courts ensure that children receive the care and support they need despite their lack of legal agency.
Understanding the Best Interests of the Child Standard
The California Family Code does not provide a specific definition of what the best interests of the child may be. Instead, it provides guidance on what the Court should consider when making determinations about them. Specifically, judges must consider the following:
- The health, safety, and welfare of the child.
- The nature and amount of contact the child currently has with both parents.
- Any history of abuse perpetrated by anyone in either parent’s household, including child and spousal abuse or other forms of domestic violence.
- Either parent’s habitual or continual use of illegal substances or abuse of alcohol or controlled substances.
The Family Code also declares that children have a right to frequent and continuing contact with both parents, except where such contact would not be in the children’s best interests.
It is important to note that state law specifically bars judges from considering certain factors when determining a child’s interests. These include:
- Sex and gender
- Gender expression
- Sexual orientation
In other words, California has rightly determined that gender and orientation are irrelevant to a person’s ability to parent their children. Judges may not take into account the sex, gender, or orientation of a parent, legal guardian, or relative when making a determination as to what is in their child’s best interests. This protects people from losing parental rights as a result of gendered bias or homophobia. While the law cannot prevent judges from expressing their unconscious biases, it does give parents grounds to fight back against unfair orders based on their gender or orientation.
How the Best Interests Standard Affects Custody
In general, California courts prefer to issue joint custody orders. These orders allow children to spend time with both parents, helping them maintain these important relationships and encouraging healthy development.
Judges can only limit custody if there is an explicit reason to believe it serves the child’s health, safety, or welfare. This means they cannot reduce one parent’s parenting time just because the other person wants more time with their children or dislikes their co-parent.
However, in certain cases, a judge may find that limiting one parent’s custody rights is in the child’s best interests. This occurs when a parent cannot provide a safe and healthy environment for their child.
For example, exposure to drug use or domestic violence is considered a sign that the parent cannot provide the child with a safe and healthy environment. As such, these issues may be grounds for the court to restrict or prohibit visitation, awarding full custody to the other parent.
Other reasons a judge may restrict custody include:
- False allegations of child abuse. Demonstrably false accusations indicate that the accuser does not have their children’s interests in mind and may be grounds for assigning primary or sole custody to the falsely accused person.
- Failure to follow court orders. For example, one parent’s ongoing refusal to follow a court-ordered parenting plan can lead to reduced custody.
- Child abduction. One parent removes the child from the state or country without the other parent’s permission, or withholds or conceals the child from the other parent in violation of a custody order. This can lead to revocation of custody or visitation rights and may be grounds for a restraining order or even criminal kidnapping charges. (However, such consequences may not apply to a person who has a right to the custody of the child and is acting upon a good faith and reasonable belief that the child, if left with the other person, will suffer immediate bodily injury or emotional harm.)
Consult Madigan & Lewis LLP About Your Child Custody Case
Custody claims can quickly become complex. Every child and family is different, so there is no cut-and-dried rule for what constitutes children’s best interests. Each case must be considered individually to find the solution that works for the family as a whole.At Madigan & Lewis LLP, our skilled attorneys specialize in helping clients achieve the best possible outcome from their family law disputes. We are available to represent you in your custody case and help you give your children the best possible future. Learn more about how we can assist you by scheduling a consultation today.