Child Custody

The child custody court process in California can be contentious, costly, and lengthy. While contested child custody proceedings are almost never in the child’s best interests, the California Superior Court prefers to have these issues decided outside of the courtroom and in a non-adversarial manner. However, this isn’t always possible. If you are facing a child custody dispute, the following is an overview of what you can expect during the litigation process.

Court-Ordered Mediation

It’s always best for the parties to try to resolve a custody matter outside the courtroom. Critically, if the parties have not reached a settlement outside of court, a judge will typically require them to pursue mediation before they may proceed to a hearing. Both parties will meet with a neutral third-party called a mediator who will help the parties communicate in a healthy manner and resolve the dispute.

The custody mediator cannot issue a court order, but they may submit a recommendation in some counties, which is given considerable weight in the decision-making process of the court. If a child custody and visitation settlement cannot be reached in mediation, the case will proceed through the litigation process. A case can be settled at any time between the parties during the child custody court process — otherwise it will go to trial and a judge will determine the outcome.

Court Hearings

In the event mediation was unsuccessful, the court will schedule a hearing at which time the parties will meet with a judge to review the facts of the case. Usually, hearings last thirty minutes or less and take place in a public courtroom. Depending on the facts and circumstances, at a hearing, a judge may:

  • Order a child custody evaluation if they determine a mental health professional’s opinion may be needed.
  • Appoint legal counsel for the child if they believe a guardian ad litem is necessary.
  • Issue temporary custody orders if a parenting plan cannot be agreed upon while custody proceedings are ongoing.
  • Schedule another hearing or order a trial.

At a hearing, the parties will be sworn in, present their arguments, and raise any evidence to the judge who will then decide what the next steps will be. The number of hearings that will be held in a case can vary, based on the specific facts. Although only one hearing may be needed in some cases, others may require several hearings or more.

Court Conferences

Not to be confused with hearings, conferences in the child custody court process are meetings with the judge that usually take place in the judge’s chambers. In most cases, these conferences will take place between the judge and the parties’ lawyers in place of the parties themselves. There are different types of conferences that may be held in a child custody dispute based on the stage of the litigation process and the county. For example, a pretrial conference may be held to set the rules for trial and ensure the parties are prepared. A settlement conference may be scheduled to give the parties an opportunity to discuss a resolution with the judge and avoid trial.


Unless the parents are able to reach a settlement in their custody dispute, the final phase in the child custody court process will be a trial. A trial is a more extensive version of a hearing where the parties will present evidence, question witnesses, and argue their position. In all cases involving child custody, a judge will apply the “best interests of the child” standard in making a ruling. The statutory factors they must consider in child custody cases include the following:

  • The child’s health, safety, and welfare
  • Any history of abuse or domestic violence
  • Any instances of neglect, drug abuse, or alcohol abuse
  • The nature and amount of contact with each parent
  • Each parent’s ability to care for the child
  • The physical and mental health of each parent
  • The child’s wishes (if they are mature enough)
  • The child’s existing routine
  • Relationships with family members
  • The home environment of each parent

The child custody court process can last anywhere from a few hours to several weeks, depending upon the complexity of the case. Once the trial concludes, the court will render a decision. When the judge signs it, the decision becomes a legally binding order by which both parties must abide.

Emergency Custody Orders

In some situations, it may be necessary to file for an emergency custody order if a parent is unfit for custody, and the child is placed in harm’s way as a result. These orders can be obtained much faster than going through the lengthy court process associated with custody proceedings — but this remedy is only available in extremely limited cases. You must be able to establish that the child is in immediate danger of harm by presenting sufficient evidence such as sworn statements, medical records, or statements made by the child.

If you are granted an ex parte emergency custody order, a hearing must typically take place within the next ten days to allow the other parent an opportunity to argue their case. The emergency custody order will remain in place until the next hearing, at which time the temporary order may be terminated, replaced with another temporary order, or extended.

Contact an Experienced California Family Law Attorney

The child custody court process can be complicated and it’s essential to have knowledgeable legal representation to ensure your rights are protected and the best interests of your children are met. With more than 20 years of experience, the Law Offices of Rick D. Banks offers clients adept advocacy and compassionate counsel for a wide variety of family law matters — including child custody matters. To schedule a consultation, call (559) 222-4891.