Your Orange County Child Custody Case: The Basics

It appears your prince isn’t so charming and your relationship fizzled out faster than the fireworks over Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Although you didn’t get your happily ever after, you’re focused on making Tomorrowland happy and healthy for your little princess. What does the law say about your right to raise your daughter? FindLaw has created this article to help you understand the basics of child custody in Orange County.

What is Custody?

Custody is the right and responsibility to make major decisions about a child. There are two types of custody: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody allows a person to determine where a child will live and who will have daily supervision of the child. Legal Custody is the ability to choose how a child will be raised, including where the child will go to school, who will be the child’s doctor, and what religion the child will practice.

A court can give legal and physical custody to one person (sole custody) or more than one person (joint custody). Joint physical custody does not mean a child will spend equal time with both parents. Instead, it provides the child will have “continued and frequent contact” with both parents. When a parent does not have a child more than half of time, he or she may be granted visitation.

Who Can Receive Custody of a Child in Orange County?

Under California law, custody is given to individuals in the following order of preference:

  • One or both parents;
  • A person with whom the child has been living; or
  • A third party the court deems suitable.

How Do I File for Custody in Orange County?

You can get custody orders as part of the following types of cases or proceedings in Orange County:

Paperwork should be filed with the Clerk of the Family Court located at the Lamoreaux Justice Center at 341 The City Drive South in Orange.

What is the Process for Getting Custody Orders in Orange County?

Whenever possible, parents are encouraged to cooperate and create a parenting plan. A parenting plan is a written custody and visitation agreement that outlines when a child will be with each parent and describes how parents will make decisions related to the health, education, and welfare of their child. The Parenting Plan Guidelines may help parents in Orange County create their own parenting plan.

If parents cannot reach an agreement on their own, they must attend mediation before a judge will hear their case. Mediation is a free, confidential service where parents meet with a neutral professional to discuss issues related to parenting their child. Parents will attempt to work with the mediator to create a parenting plan for the unique needs of their child. There is an online mediation orientation for parents to review.

In the event parents cannot reach an agreement on their own or through mediation, a judge will decide custody orders at a hearing. A judge may order an investigation and report before a hearing. Parents will be given a packet to complete and there is a fee for this service. The investigation includes interviews with parents and other adults, criminal history checks of parents, and review of any relevant reports like police reports and child protection agency reports. Following the investigation, the evaluator will issue a report with custody recommendations for the court.

What Does the Court Consider at a Hearing?

In Orange County, a judge has wide discretion when granting custody orders. Unlike other locations, the law in Orange County does not favor joint custody. It does, however, prohibit preference based on either parent’s sex, disability, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status, or marital status.

A judge must make custody orders that are “in the best interests” of a child. That means a judge will consider all factors that impact a child’s health, education, and well-being. Those factors may include the following:

  • The criminal history of a parent;
  • Prior abuse by a parent;
  • A parent’s alcohol or drug addiction;
  • The child’s preference;
  • Whether a parent encourages a positive relationship between the child and the other parent;
  • The living environment of both parents; and
  • Whether one parent has been the primary caregiver.

How Can I Change a Custody Order?

Either parent can request a change to a custody order if new, significant changes in circumstances have occurred since the order was first issued. To ask for a modification, you must file a Request for Order with the Clerk. The Clerk will set both a mediation date and a court hearing. At the hearing, the judge will review any agreements made during mediation and consider whether any new situations justify a change in the custody orders.

What if I Fear Immediate Harm to My Child?

In emergency situations where there is a danger of immediate harm to a child, you may ask the court to issue temporary orders called ex parte orders. Examples of immediate harm include recent and continued abuse against the child or a risk that the child will be taken out of California. Ex parte orders are serious and rare and you may consider contacting an attorney to help you with that process.

Where Can I Go In Orange County For Help With My Custody Case?

Child custody cases can be stressful and confusing for both parents and children. Parenting classes and family counseling are available at (949) 646-4357. If you need help understanding your rights, you may want to consult an experienced family law attorney in Orange County. Alternately, the Orange County Self-Help Center may be able to assist with your case if you are not represented by an attorney.

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