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Child Custody Basics - Rights, Residency, and Relationships

"Child custody" is a legal term that is often used by family courts to describe the rights and responsibilities of divorced parents and their minor children, the residency or placement of the children, and the relationship and/or amount of contact the children have with each parent. When divorced parents are unable to agree on such issues, the family courts are often left with the difficult task of determining the best custodial arrangement for the children and parenting plan for the parents. The more parents understand what is involved in child custody determinations, the more informed they will be in making decisions regarding their children after a divorce.

Rights and responsibilities of the parents

The rights and responsibilities of each parent to his or her minor children include decisions regarding the raising and general welfare of the children on issues such as the children's education, medical care, dental care, and religion. Such rights and responsibilities are commonly referred to as "legal custody" of the children.

Residency or placement of the children

The residency or placement of children refers to where the children will live and spend the majority of their time. Oftentimes, a child will live with one parent more than the other parent, and the parent that the child lives with the most will typically be responsible for the day-to-day care of the child. In some cases, the child will live equally with both parents, close to equally with both parents, or live a significant amount of time with each parent and the parents will share in the responsibilities and day-to-day care of the child. Residency and day-to-day care comprise what is commonly known as "physical custody" of the children.

Relationship and/or amount of contact the children have with each parent

In the case where the child resides or lives primarily with one parent, the time spent with the other parent is often referred to as "visitation." The parent that the child lives with more is often referred to as the "custodial parent" and the parent with visitation is referred to as the "noncustodial parent." In such cases, the noncustodial parent will typically have a visitation schedule that details his or her contact with the children. The visitation schedule is sometimes referred to as a "parenting arrangement."


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Either parent may be ordered to pay an amount necessary for the support, maintenance and education of the child. Child support is calculated using the California child support guidelines. An amount different from that which is produced using the guidelines may be ordered based on specific deviation factors and also at the discretion of the court.
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