Child Custody and Parenting Time (Visitation)
When parents separate, they have to make decisions about custody of their children and parenting time (also called “timeshare” or “visitation”).
If you cannot reach an agreement with the other parent about a parenting plan, usually one of you has to ask the court to make an order. Check out our video on the basics of custody and parenting time.
When you ask the court for child custody and parenting time (visitation) orders, you will have to decide what to ask for.
Child custody is made up of legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody relates to who makes the legal decisions in a child's life, like education, health care, and the child's welfare.
Physical custody relates to who the child lives with most of the time. The parent that doesn't have physical custody can have visitation or parenting time with the child.
Legal custody can be joint (shared). Or it can be to one parent or the other as sole legal custody. The same is true with physical custody. Visitation or parenting time can be reasonable, by a fixed schedule, supervised, or even denied altogether.
A good way to learn about what should be in your parenting plan is to look at the court forms for custody and visitation. Here are two:
- Child Custody and Visitation Order Attachment (FL-341)
- Children's Holiday Schedule Attachment (FL-341(C)
Another great resource is Families Change – A Guide to Separation and Divorce. It is an online guide with 3 versions—one for parents, one for children, and one for teens and pre-teens. See also the Parenting After Separation course.
How to Get or Change a Custody/Visitation Order
If you and your child’s other parent cannot agree to a parenting plan or need help from the court, one of you will have to file papers in court to ask for a court date and attend mediation at Family Court Services. Check out our video on how to ask for a custody and visitation order.
To ask for a court date you must have an existing case with the other parent of your children or start a new case at the same time. The type of case you must have or start can be:
- Divorce or Legal Separation
- Parentage (Paternity)
- Petition for Custody and Support of Minor Children
- Domestic Violence Restraining Order
If you need to start a case
If you are sure you need to start a case:
- Click for info to start a divorce or legal separation case
- Click for an online program that helps you fill out the forms to open a parentage (paternity) case
- Or, check out our Parentage flowchart to see all the steps you have to follow, links to forms, and info.
- Click for info to start a domestic violence restraining order case
- Click for an online program for a petition for custody and support case
If you don’t have one of these cases and need help, or if you are not sure, contact the Self-Help Center.
We can also give you guides for the steps to follow and review your forms before you file them.
If you already have a case
Once you have an open case and want to get your first custody and visitation order OR want to change an existing order, you will need:
- You can also fill out the Child Custody and Visitation (Parenting Time) Application Attachment (FL-311). It is an optional form (you do not have to use it), but you may find it helpful in making sure you do not leave anything out of your request.
If you have a parenting plan or proposal for the custody and visitation orders you would like the judge to make, attach that too.
- If you cannot afford the filing fee, ask for a fee waiver using forms FW-001 and FW-003.
You can use a program to fill out the Request for Order and related forms online. This program also allows you to e-file your forms:
Once you fill out the FL-300 and any attachments, there are more steps you will have to follow.
Child Custody Mediation
When you ask the judge to make an order about custody and parenting time, the judge will likely first refer you to mediation in the Family Court Services department. It is a free service and is provided by a mediator, a mental health professional who has education and experience working with families, children, and custody issues.
To learn about the process of child custody mediation, read the Child Custody Information Sheet—Child Custody Mediation (FL-314-INFO).
In cases of domestic violence, you can ask to meet separately with the mediator. You can also bring a support person with you. Click to learn more about the law on child custody in domestic violence cases.
First, keep in mind that the law is very strict on what is an emergency. Under Family Code section 3064, the parent asking for an emergency order must show immediate harm to the child or immediate risk that the child will be removed from California. Read the code section to make sure you understand what is immediate harm.
The Mendocino Superior Court also has local rules that you MUST follow. Look at Rule 4.7. It tells you that if you’re making an emergency request (an ex parte request), your declaration (statement) or that of any witness you’re wanting to include MUST:
- Be based upon your personal knowledge (for your declaration) or your witness’ personal knowledge, if you’re attaching a declaration from a witness. The judge may decide not to consider a declaration based on hearsay (if there is no valid exception to the hearsay rules).
- Specifically describe the dates of incidents, provide a detailed factual description of what happened, and name the specific harm threatened or actually caused. This means you need more than just conclusions, feelings, wishes, or fears.
- Fully disclose relevant facts.
- Disclose whether the request you’re making will change what is happening related to custody and visitation at the moment.
You can also read the Self-Help Guide from the California Courts to learn more about emergency requests, also called ex parte requests.
Check out our Temporary Emergency Court Order (TECO) Flowchart to see the law, all the steps you have to follow, links to forms, and info. This flowchart also has instructions if the other parent has asked for an emergency order against you and you want to respond.
How to Respond to a Request for an Emergency Order
If your child's other parent has emailed, texted, or given you papers saying they will be asking the judge for emergency custody orders, you need to act right away. You have very little time.
Check out our Temporary Emergency Court Order (TECO) Flowchartwhich has instructions for you to respond. It also has the law that the other parent must follow. If you believe the other side did not follow the law or your case does not meet the legal requirements, you can say so in your response.