October 15, 2019
Child Custody and Visitation

The court will determine each parent's rights and obligations toward their children if the parties cannot agree on a parenting arrangement. The court will make decisions about your children if:

  • you are going through a divorce (dissolution) and cannot agree on matters affecting the children
  • you and the other parent were never married but one parent has asked the court for a legal order establishing the rights and obligations of each parent
  • you are seeking a domestic violence restraining order and have children with the person to be restrained


Custody refers to the responsibility of caring for the children and planning for their future. If you have children with another person, the end of that relationship usually does not mean the end of your contact with that person. Together you should try to agree on a plan that is best for your children. There are many different types of custody:

  • Joint custody means that both parents share physical and legal custody.
  • Sole physical custody means that a child will live with and be under the supervision of one parent. In this type of arrangement it is common for the other parent to have visitation. Visitation refers to the time that a child spends with a non-custodial parent by mutual agreement of the parents or according to a schedule.
  • Joint physical custody is defined as each parent having significant periods of physical custody with the child.
  • Sole legal custody means that one parent shall have the right and the responsibility to make the decisions relating to the health, education and welfare of a child.
  • Joint legal custody means that both parents shall have the right and the responsibility to make the decisions relating to the health, education and welfare of a child.

If you and the other parent cannot agree on a plan, the court will decide. The official legal standard is always the child's "best interest". The policy favored by the courts is that arrangement which allows for frequent and continuing contact with both parents. Before the court makes these decisions, parents must go through a process with Family Court Services called child custody recommending counseling (formerly mediation).


Family Court Services (FCS) (650) 261-5080 is part of the court and provides mediation and recommending counseling for families with custody and visitation disputes. A person may be referred to FCS when an action is started that involves custody or visitation. Private mediators outside of the court system can also be used.

During the FCS appointment both parents sit down with a child custody recommending counselor and try to come to an agreement concerning custody and visitation of the children. If the parents are successful at reaching an agreement, they can receive help drafting a stipulation and court order through the office of the Family Law Facilitator (650) 261-5010.

If no agreement is reached, the recommending counselor is required by law to make a recommendation to the judge.

If the court finds it to be in the best interest of the children, the court can also order visitation for grandparents, stepparents and others.

Parent Orientation Program

The court requires parents with disputed custody and visitation issues to complete the FCS Parent Orientation Program prior to their appointment.

Parent Workshop

The court strongly recommends parents with disputed custody and visitation issues to attend a parent education class prior to the court date.

© 2019 Superior Court of San Mateo County