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Divorce Help | July 15, 2024

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When Are Parents Awarded Sole Custody in California?

  • Contributing Author

When a previously married couple is in the middle of a divorce and children are involved in the picture, a court must decide if shared custody or sole custody is awarded. Generally speaking the California courts will do everything in its power for the best interests of the child, the situation of parents and additional contributing factors. 

Ideally, in most situations, both parents will be involved in some sort of shared custody arrangement. However, there are circumstances when the courts may deem necessary that one parent is awarded sole custody of a child. Although rare, these instances are usually done in instances where one parent suffers from a history that will deem that parent unqualified for joint custody. Below are some of the most common circumstances awarding sole custody of a child.

Domestic Violence 

If the relationship has a history of domestic violence, then the parent that has been abused by the aggressor may receive sole custody of a child. In the event that one of the parents has sexually and/or physically abused the other parent. This can be used as grounds for sole custody as these events can present a danger for the victimized parent along with the child.

Substance Abuse & Addiction 

If one of the parents is dependent on alcohol or addicted to any drug(s) the court can take the parent’s addiction issues into account. While in an addictive mindset, the parent with abuse issues may prioritize their substance abuse ahead of the best interests of the child.

When addiction is compounded in a relationship and parentage, the relationship between the parties can be pushed. If substance abuse or addiction is impacting your relationship, and was a contributing factor in your divorce, ensure that this knowledge is disseminated to the judge residing in your case.  


In the event that one of the parents is incarcerated in a jail or prison, the court may have no choice but to grant sole custody to the non-incarcerated individual. In the case that both parents are incarcerated, the courts may elect to provide custody to another family member. Ideally, the courts will place the child back in the hands of his parent(s) if and when the incarcerated individuals are released and morally fit to take custody of the child.  


In the event that an individual wants to move away, or is relocated out of state, the court may need to grant one of the parents with “primary physical custody”. Per the Judicial Branch of California:

“a parent who has a permanent order for sole physical custody (also called “primary physical custody”) can move away with the children unless the other parent can show that the move would harm the children.” 

Relocation cases are very complicated and can be fluid and changing in nature. If relocation is a factor in a divorce case, it is best to consult with an experienced family lawyer.

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