Child Custody Basics

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Authored By: California Courts Self Help Guide

Access the webpage above for the most up to date information!

What is a parenting plan?

Parenting plans have orders about child custody and parenting time, also called visitation. Your parenting plan should describe:

  • How to care for your children
  • Where they will live
  • When they will see each parent

Parenting plans must be in the best interest of your children.

Until you have a court order, both parents have the same rights. This means that both of you can make decisions about your children. No parent has any more rights to have the children in their care than the other.  

If you or your child have been abused by the other parent, special laws apply to your case.

Child custody

Child custody refers to the rights and responsibilities of the parents for taking care of the children. There are two types: 

  • Legal custody: who makes important decisions for your children (like health care, education, welfare). 

  • Physical custody: who your children live with most of the time. 

Legal and physical custody can be shared (joint) or only to one parent (sole)

Joint legal custody: both parents share the rights and responsibilities for making important decisions about the children. 

Sole legal custody: only one parent has this right and responsibility. 


    • School or childcare 
    • Religious activities  
    • Psychiatric, psychological, or other mental health counseling or therapy needs 
    • Doctor, dentist, orthodontist, or other medical care (except in emergency situations) 
    • Sports, summer camp, vacation, or extracurricular activities 
    • Travel 

Parenting time

Types of parenting time orders

Parenting time (or visitation) can be open, with a schedule, supervised, or none. There are 4 main types of parenting time orders: 

With a schedule

Often, it helps parents and children to have a set schedule with the dates and times that the children will be with each parent. The schedule can include holidays, special occasions (like birthdays, mother's day, father's day, and other important dates for the family), and vacations. 


These orders are open-ended. They allow the parents to work it out between them. This type of plan can work if parents get along very well, can be flexible, and communicate well. But, if you disagree, not having a set schedule can create problems. 


This is used when there are concerns about the children’s safety and well-being. The visits with the other parent are supervised by you, another adult, or a professional agency. It is sometimes used when a child and a parent need time to become more familiar with each other, like if a parent has not seen their child in a long time and both need to slowly get to know each other again. Find more information on supervised visitation

No visitation

It is used when visiting with a parent, even if supervised, would be physically or emotionally harmful to the children.  

Determining what's in the best interest of your child

If you and the other parent can't agree on a parenting plan, then you will have to ask a judge to decide. To decide what is best for a child, the judge considers: 

  • The age and health of the child

  • The emotional ties between the parents and the child

  • The child’s ties to their school, home, and community

  • The ability of each parent to care for the child

  • Any history of family violence 

  • Any regular and ongoing substance abuse by either parent

Then, the judge decides based on what's in the best interest of your child.

How to get or change a custody and parenting time order

File papers with the court to ask for an order

There are different types of cases and papers you can file to ask for a child custody and visitation (parenting time) order. Which type of case or papers you can file depends on your situation, like whether you and the other parent are married or you already filed a family law case.

To figure out what type of case and forms you need to file, you can answer a few questions to get to find out what papers to file to get an order. Or, you can review all the options.

Find out what forms to file

How to respond if you got (were served) papers asking for a custody and parenting time order

Your options to respond, the forms you use to respond, and any deadlines you need to meet depend on which forms you were given. The forms should have a form number in the upper right or left-hand corner. Get step-by-step instructions to respond to:

If you do not respond, a judge may make a decision without your input.


(Accessed 3/13/2024 - please click the link above for the most up to date information)

Last Review and Update: Mar 12, 2024
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