What is Family Law?
Family law encompasses a wide range of legal cases including divorce. Family law isn’t strictly limited to divorce and related topics, though; it also includes child-related disputes such as custody and visitation, along with pre-marital and post-marital agreements.
How Can a Legal Document Assistant Help You?
Reasons to choose Sonoma County LDA
- We are professional, driven, and professional service
- We are non-lawyers here to help you with legal forms.
- We strive for the best possible service because we put your needs first.
- We have a proven track record of successful client interactions.
What Is the California Divorce Process?
You might think divorce is the only way to end a marriage in California. In reality, you can often achieve this goal in a variety of ways.
- Legal Separation – You and your spouse live separate lives while legally maintaining your married status.
- Summary Dissolution of Marriage – An ideal option if you and your spouse (or domestic partner) do not have substantial shared property or children.
- Annulment – An annulment is your best option if you are recently married and want to effectively reverse or cancel the marriage.
- Divorce – A traditional divorce is also an option for people who wish to end their marriage. Divorce can range from simple, amicable separations to decrees involving court-ordered custody and high-asset property division.
What Are My Divorce Options in California?
There is no “one size fits all” divorce solution. Every family is unique, which means every divorce requires an individualized approach. There are two factors to consider when picking the right divorce option for you. The first is complexity.
- Whether or not you have children with your spouse
- How long you and your spouse have been married
- How much property and how many assets you share
If you’ve only been married for a short time, do not own property together and don’t have children, for example, you may be able to get your marriage annulled. If you own a house together and have been married for many years, this simpler solution probably won’t be an option.
The second factor to consider is legal guidance. Talking to a qualified lawyer can help you truly understand your options and make the best decision for you and your family. When you seek guidance from an attorney, you’ll be getting help from someone who not only understands the law but has guided people just like you through the divorce process before. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
Legal separation is one of the three ways parties to a marriage can elect to end their marriage in California. Legal separation may be used in a number of situations. For instance, if the parties have decided to end their marriage or domestic partnership with the possibility of reuniting in the future. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
Dissolution of Marriage
Summary of Dissolution Divorce is a fairly simple method of terminating your marriage or domestic partnership if you and your spouse do not have children and do not own substantial property. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
Marriage Annulments in California
Marriage to someone of unsound mind is one of the most cited grounds for seeking an annulment. There are also many valid grounds for seeking an annulment in California. These also include bigamy, physical or mental incapacity, marrying someone who is underage, marrying a relative, fraudulent marriage, or forcing someone without their consent. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
Child Custody, Support, and Visitation
Child Custody is perhaps the most difficult issue in California family law. When two parents of a minor child have separated, one of the other most difficult parts of the separation is determining how often the minor child will spend time with each parent. While creating a child visitation schedule can be stressful, it doesn’t have to be that way if the parents are civil, cooperative, and focused on ensuring the best interests of the minor child. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
Child Support is the financial support provided by one parent to the other parent to aid in the cost of raising and supporting the minor child. This money is often used to pay for a portion of the necessary expenses of the child, which include housing, food, school, and other necessaries. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
Family Law and Domestic Violence
Often, the term “domestic violence” is associated with physical violence. While this is true, the definition is actually much broader. In California, “domestic violence” can mean any of the following behaviors: Physical harm (or attempted physical harm), assault, threats, stalking, and harassment. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
If you are married or have an intimate or familiar relationship with someone who has abused or threatened to abuse you, you can request a restraining order. The most important thing is your safety and the safety of your children. If you are also seeking a divorce, getting a protective order can help keep your abuser away while you work with an attorney to find a long-term solution. Sonoma County LDA suggests you speak to an attorney before you hire any LDA to help you with your legal forms.
Here you can learn about child custody and parenting time (also called “visitation”) cases, how to prepare a parenting plan for you and your children, and how to get or change a court order. You can also find many resources to help you and your children through your separation or divorce.
Parenting Time: Developing Plans
Children and Separation or Divorce
Parents who come to court about child custody and parenting time (also called “visitation”) face decisions about parenting plans for their children. This section gives you information about parenting after separation or divorce. It helps you understand what your children may be going through and what they may need to adjust to the changes in their lives. It also gives you information to make a parenting plan for you, your children’s other parent, and your children that is based on the best interest of your children.
Click on any of the topics below to get more information.
Children and Separation or Divorce
When parents separate or get a divorce, their children are affected in many different ways. Get information to help you understand what your children may be going through so you can help them cope with your separation. You know your children best and you can use the information provided here to help them and come up with a parenting plan that is in their best interests.
A parenting plan, also called a “custody and visitation agreement” or a “time-share plan,” is the parent’s written agreement about how much time the child will spend with each parent, and how the parents will make decisions about the child’s welfare and education. Learn what you should think about when deciding on a parenting plan that is in the best interests of your child, what should be in your parenting plan, and how to write up your parenting plan.
Needs of Children of Different Ages
Find information about what children of different ages may need from you as they try to cope with separation or divorce. Learn how to best work with your children and with their other parent to make sure your children can adjust to the changes in a loving and supportive environment.
Find about resources that may be available in your community to help you in parenting your children during your separation.
CAUTION: This information is for parents who are not facing issues of drug abuse, sexual abuse, or domestic violence.
Custody and Parenting Time (Visitation) Orders
Parents that separate will need to have a plan for deciding how their children will be cared for and where they will live or spend time. Sometimes parents can agree to a parenting plan, and other times they need the help of the court to come up with a plan that is in the best interest of their children. This section will explain the law about custody and visitation (also called “parenting time”) of children, and how to ask for a court order, respond to a request, change an existing order, or enforce an order.
Click on the topic below that deals with your specific situation.
Basics of Custody & Visitation Orders
This section helps you understand some legal words that are used in family court to describe the sharing of parenting responsibilities. For example, you will often hear the words “custody” and “visitation” being used in separation and divorce cases. “Child custody” refers to the rights and responsibilities between parents for taking care of their children. In your case, you will need to decide on custody. You also need to decide on “visitation,” which means how each parent will spend time with the children.
In California, either parent can have custody of the children, or the parents can share custody. The judge makes the final decision about custody and visitation but usually will approve the arrangement (the parenting plan) that both parents agree on. If the parents cannot agree, the judge will make a decision at a court hearing. The judge will usually not make a decision about custody and visitation until after the parents have met with a mediator from Family Court Services.
Types of custody orders
There are two kinds of child custody:
- Legal custody, which means who makes important decisions for your children (like health care, education, and welfare), and
- Physical custody, which means who your children live with.
Legal custody can be:
- Joint, where both parents share the right and responsibility to make the important decisions about the health, education, and welfare of the children.
- Sole, where only 1 parent has the right and responsibility to make the important decisions about the health, education, and welfare of the children.
Parents with legal custody make decisions or choices about their children’s:
- School or child care
- Religious activities or institutions
- Psychiatric, psychological, or other mental health counseling or therapy needs
- Doctor, dentist, orthodontist, or other health professional (except in emergency situations)
- Sports, summer camp, vacation, or extracurricular activities
- Residence (where the children will live)
Parents who share legal custody both have the right to make decisions about these aspects of their children’s lives, but they do not have to agree on every decision. Either parent can make a decision alone. But to avoid having problems and ending up back in court, both parents should communicate with each other and cooperate in making decisions together.
Physical custody can be:
- Joint, which means that the children live with both parents.
- Sole or primary, which means the children live with 1 parent most of the time and usually visit the other parent.
Joint physical custody does not mean that the children must spend exactly half the time with each parent. Usually the children spend a little more time with 1 parent than the other because it is too hard to split the time exactly in half. When 1 parent has the children more than half of the time, then that parent is sometimes called the “primary custodial parent.”
Sometimes, a judge gives parents joint legal custody, but not joint physical custody. This means that both parents share the responsibility for making important decisions in the children’s lives, but the children live with 1 parent most of the time. The parent who does not have physical custody usually has visitation with the children.
Types of visitation orders
Visitation (also called “time-share”) is the plan for how the parents will share time with the children. A parent who has the children less than half of the time has visitation with the children. Visitation orders are varied, depending on the best interests of the children, the situation of the parents, and other factors. In general, visitation can be:
- Visitation according to a schedule: Generally, it helps the parents and children to have detailed visitation plans to prevent conflicts and confusion, so parents and courts often come up with a visitation schedule detailing the dates and times that the children will be with each parent. Visitation schedules can include holidays, special occasions (like birthdays, mother’s day, father’s day, and other important dates for the family), and vacations.
- Reasonable visitation: A reasonable visitation order does not necessarily have details as to when the children will be with each parent. Usually, these orders are open-ended and allow the parents to work it out between them. This type of visitation plan can work if parents get along very well and can be flexible and communicate well with one another. But if there are ever disagreements or misunderstandings, this kind of an open schedule can cause issues between the parents, and the children may suffer as a result.
- Supervised visitation: This is used when the children’s safety and well-being require that visits with the other parent be supervised by you, another adult, or a professional agency. Click for more information on supervised visitation. Supervised visitation is sometimes also used in cases where a child and a parent need time to become more familiar with each other, like if a parent has not seen the child in a long time and they need to slowly get to know each other again.
- No visitation: This option is used when visiting with the parent, even with supervision, would be physically or emotionally harmful to the children. In these cases, it is not in the best interest of the children for the parent to have any contact with the children.
The law on deciding custody and visitation
The law says that judges must give custody according to what is in the “best interest of the child.”
To decide what is best for a child, the court will consider:
- The age of the child,
- The health of the child,
- The emotional ties between the parents and the child,
- The ability of the parents to care for the child,
- Any history of family violence or substance abuse, and
- The child’s ties to school, home, and his or her community.
Courts do not automatically give custody to the mother or the father, no matter what the age or sex of your children. Courts cannot deny your right to custody or visitation just because you were never married to the other parent, or because you or the other parent has a physical disability or a different lifestyle, religious belief, or sexual orientation.
In addition to custody orders, the judge will probably also make child support orders. Keep in mind that a child support order is separate from child custody and visitation, so you cannot refuse to let the other parent see the children just because he or she is not making the child support payments that the court ordered. And you cannot refuse to pay child support just because the other parent is not letting you see your children. But child support and custody are related because the amount of time each parent spends with the children will affect the amount of child support. Click to read more about child support.
Sometimes, if giving custody to either parent would harm the children, courts give custody to someone other than the parents because it is in the best interest of the children. Usually this is called “guardianship,” where someone who is not the parent asks for custody of the children because the parents cannot care for them. Click for more information on guardianship.
Ways to get a custody and visitation court order
In most cases, parents can make their own agreements for custody and visitation, without a court order. If you make an agreement between the 2 of you, the agreement becomes binding and enforceable. But if 1 of you does not follow the agreement, a court cannot enforce it until it becomes a court order. So if you and the other parent agree on custody and want a court order that either of you can enforce if 1 of you violates the agreement, you can turn in your agreement to a judge. The judge will probably approve the agreement, sign it, and it will become a court order. After the judge signs your agreement, file it with the court clerk. Click for more information on writing up a custody and visitation agreement or parenting plan.
If you cannot agree, the judge will send you to mediation and a mediator from Family Court Services or another court-related program will help you. If you still cannot agree, you and the other parent will meet with the judge. Generally, the judge will then decide your custody and visitation schedule. Learn more about mediation of custody cases.
In some cases, the judge may appoint a child custody evaluator to do a custody evaluation and recommend a parenting plan. A parent can also ask for an evaluation, but the request may not be granted. Parents may have to pay for an evaluation.
The judge also may appoint lawyers for children in custody cases. The judge will also decide who will pay for the children’s lawyer’s fees.
After a judge makes a custody or visitation order, 1 or both parents may want to change the order. Usually, the judge will approve a new custody and visitation order that both parents agree to. If the parents cannot agree on a change, 1 parent can ask the court for a change. That parent will probably have to complete certain forms to ask for a court hearing and prove to the judge that there is a significant change in circumstances (for example, the children would be harmed unless the order is changed) or other good reason to change the order. Both parents will most likely have to meet with a mediator to talk about why the court order needs to be changed.
Child custody mediation gives parents a chance to resolve disagreements about a parenting plan for their children. In mediation, the parents have the help of an expert (a mediator) in resolving these disagreements. If the parents are able to work out an agreement, the mediator helps the parents write a parenting plan that may then become a custody and visitation order if it is signed by a judge. In some counties, this service is called “child custody recommending counseling” because the mediator (called a “child custody recommending counselor”) can give a written recommendation to the parents and the court if the parents cannot agree to a parenting plan.
The goals of mediation are to:
- Help you make a parenting plan that is in the best interest of your children.
- Help you make a parenting plan that lets your children spend time with both parents.
- Help you learn ways to deal with anger or resentment.
The following video describes the mediation and child custody recommending counseling court process, provides helpful information about parenting plans, and offers tips on how parents can reduce conflict and help their children adjust to the changes happening in their family.
The public policy of the state of California is to protect the best interest of children whose parents have a custody or visitation matter in family court. Sometimes, based on issues of protection and safety, a judge will order that a child only have contact with a parent when a neutral third person is present during the visitation. This type of third-person visitation arrangement is often called “supervised visitation.”
Read the Custody and Domestic Violence section for information and help if you have experienced domestic violence and are dealing with custody and visitation issues.
A judge may order supervised visitation for many reasons, like:
- To give the visiting parent a chance to address specific issues;
- To help reintroduce a parent and a child after a long absence;
- To help introduce a parent and a child when there has been no existing relationship between them;
- When there is a history or allegations of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, or substance abuse;
- When there are parenting concerns or mental illness; or
- When there is a parental threat of abduction.
The court order will specify the time and duration of the visits. Sometimes, the court order will also specify who will provide the supervised visitation services and where the visits will take place.
Supervised Visitation and Exchange Services
Short video and training for parents, supervised visitation providers, court staff, and other interested professionals.
Supervised Visitation and Exchange Services in California©
A 6-minute video that covers the basics.
- What is supervised visitation and exchange
- Types of providers
- Role of the provider
- Cases with domestic violence or sexual abuse
- Where to learn more
Training Module: Understanding Supervised Visitation and Supervised Exchange Services in the State of California©
An introductory training with practical information for parents and professional and non-professional providers.
- Overview of supervised visitation and exchange services
- The role of the provider
- Non-professional provider requirements
- Professional provider requirements and scenarios
- Terms, FAQs, and resources for parents or providers
Professional providers who finish the training and pass the quiz receive training education hours.
Custody and Domestic Violence
If you or your child has been abused by the other parent, it is very important to have a parenting plan that will keep everyone safe. In domestic violence cases, parenting plans should be detailed so that each parent understands what they are allowed and not allowed to do.
In California, if you want the court to order a parenting plan you must first meet with a court professional to see if you and the other parent can agree on a parenting plan– this process is called “mediation.” If you cannot agree on a parenting plan, then a judge will decide on a parenting plan that is best for your child (see below to find more information on custody laws and domestic violence).
The court professional that you will mediate with is called a “mediator” or “child custody recommending counselor.”
Things to think about before your mediation session:
- You have the right to meet separately and not with the other parent if your case involves domestic violence. Tell court staff as soon as possible if you want a separate session.
- You may bring a support person with you to mediation and to court. Note that your support person may not speak for you or participate in mediation or in court. You must do the talking.
- If you are concerned with the other parent having time alone with your child, ask for information on supervised visitation.
- Ask for detailed orders that make it clear when visits are going to take place.
- Pick a safe place for drop off and pick up (child exchanges).
- Should child exchanges happen without you and the other parent seeing each other (for example, one parent drops child off at school and the other picks up from school)?
For more information, read about custody mediation or watch this 30 minute video.
Visit the domestic violence safety planning section of this website for more information on safety plans for you and your children.
You may want to talk with a lawyer to find out the best legal way for you to proceed. Free help is also available at your local self-help center.
Also, in most cities and counties in California, there are domestic violence agencies that can provide legal help with custody issues. You can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline and ask them for domestic violence organizations in your area.
You can also find information about asking for a domestic violence restraining order and responding to a domestic violence restraining order. Click on the topics below for more information.
Visitation Rights of Grandparents
If you are a grandparent and want information about visitation with your grandchildren, there are many resources that can help you learn about your options and understand your rights as a grandparent.
Under California law, a grandparent can ask the court for reasonable visitation with a grandchild. To give a grandparent reasonable visitation with a grandchild, the court has to:
- Find that there was a pre-existing relationship between grandparent and grandchild that has “engendered a bond.” This means that there is such a bond between grandparent and grandchild that visitation is in best interest of the grandchild.
- Balance the best interest of the child in having visitation with a grandparent with the rights of the parents to make decisions about their child.
In general, grandparents cannot file for visitation rights while the grandchild’s parents are married. But there are exceptions, like:
- The parents are living separately;
- A parent’s whereabouts are unknown (and have been for at least a month);
- One of the parents joins the grandparent’s petition for visitation;
- The child does not live with either of his or her parents; or
- The grandchild has been adopted by a stepparent.
If a grandparent has visitation through the courts, and things change and none of these exceptions apply any more, one or both parents can ask the court to end the grandparent’s visitation and the court must then end the grandparent’s visitation rights at that time.
Read California Family Code sections 3100-3105 to read the law about a grandparent’s rights to visitation. This code section also details other situations the court must consider before giving visitation to a grandparent. Make sure you read it carefully and get legal advice from a lawyer if you think they may apply to your case.
Keep in mind that, if possible, it may be best for you and your family to try to resolve these issues out of court. Consider mediation between you and your grandchildren’s parents as a way to openly and safely discuss your needs and concerns to try to reach an agreement that is in the best interests of your grandchildren and that preserves your relationship with them as well as with their parents. Read our section on Resolving Your Dispute Out of Court to learn more about mediation and get some resources to find mediators in your community that can help you. It is possible that if you go to court, you will also have to meet with a mediator from Family Court Services. Click to learn more about Family Court Services mediation.
If you are a grandparent and you are raising your grandchildren either because the parents are absent or are unable to care for their children (like if they are on drugs, or in jail), read our section on Guardianship. When a non-parent wants custody of a child (and not just visitation rights to see the child) it is called guardianship, and there is a separate court process for guardianships.
How does a grandparent ask for visitation in court?
Under the law, a grandparent who wants to ask the court to order visitation with a grandchild can file a petition in court. It is difficult to figure out exactly how to file this petition. There may already be a family law case filed between the child’s parents (like a divorce, a parentage case, a child support case, or a domestic violence restraining order) and a grandparent may be able to ask for visitation under one of those existing cases. Or, there may be no open case, and you, as the grandparent, may have to file a petition in court starting a case from scratch.
There are currently no official court forms specifically for this purpose, but several courts have developed local forms and templates you can use to ask for visitation with your grandchild. Ask your court’s self-help center or family law facilitator if they have samples, templates or local forms you can use. You can also hire your own private lawyer to help you with your petition or with parts of your case (called “limited-scope representation”). Click for help finding a lawyer. Click for more information on limited-scope representation.
Senior Legal Hotline Grandparent Project
This project by the Senior Legal Hotline offers legal advice for grandparents on custody or visitation of grandchildren in California .
GrandCare Support Locator
A service by the AARP Foundation that connects grandparents with national, state and local groups, programs, resources and services that support grandparents or other relative caregivers as well as grandparents facing visitation issues. Also offered is Help from Grandparents Raising Children, which you can use to search for a help in your area.
Financial help for grandparents raising grandchildren
Provided by the AARP, includes information of where to get financial help, as well as other information on issues affecting you and your grandchildren.
Advocates for Grandparent GrandChild Connection
Multigenerational organization which educates the public about grandparents’ rights, advocates for grandchildren, and supports grandparents who have suffered from loss of affection and contact from their grandchildren.
GrandFacts : A State Fact Sheet for Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children
Provides an extensive list of resources and contact information for help to grandparents in California.
Grandparents Resource Center (GRC)
A Colorado nonprofit that offers services, some for a fee, to grandparents struggling with rights issues.
The Foundation for Grandparenting
The Foundation is a nonprofit foundation dating back to 1980. This website includes resources, links, articles and other help for grandparents and families.
National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights (NCGCR)
The NCGCR strives “to protect the rights of grandparents to secure their grandchildren’s health, happiness and well-being.” The main focus of this organization seems to be advocating for grandparents raising grandchildren, but clicking on the “Resources” tab and scrolling down will take you to some information about grandparent visitation rights.
Grandfamilies State Law and Policy Resource Center
National legal resource in support of grandfamilies both within and outside the child welfare system. This resource center has a searchable database of laws and legislation affecting grandfamilies both inside and outside the foster care system for all 50 states, and other relevant resources and publications.
SB1418 authorizes non-lawyers to prepare legal documents for people doing their own legal tasks. Effective January 1, 2000, these non-lawyers, called Legal Document Assistants, may:
- Distribute to their customers legal materials that have been published or approved by a lawyer
- Prepare the customers’ legal documents under the direction of their customers
- File the customers’ legal documents in the appropriate courts
To qualify as a Legal Document Assistant, a person must:
- Register in the County in which they work
- Post a $25,000 Bond
- Establish that he or she has a minimum level of experience and/or education
Every Legal Document Assistant is required to use a Contract. The Contract will provide appropriate notice to the Legal Document Assistant’s customers regarding the scope of the customers’ rights and the Legal Document Assistant’s duties. This Bill was passed for your protection. When you look to hire a Legal Document Assistant after January 1, 2000 be sure to ask if he or she is bonded and registered.
Legal Document Assistants were once commonly known as Independent Paralegals. However, as of January 1st, 2000, only those Paralegals working directly for attorneys may now be referred to as Paralegals. Those formerly known as Independent Paralegals are now officially known as Legal Document Assistants (LDAs). LDAs often have the same educational background as a paralegal and are REQUIRED by law to be registered and bonded in the county in which they have their principal place of business. Please Note:
- A Legal Document Assistant is NOT a Lawyer.
- By law, they cannot give you legal advice or represent you in the courts in any matter.
- If you need to consult with an attorney, your LDA will be able to provide you with a referral.
- We always suggest that you be sure to ask the LDA you are thinking of retaining if he or she is bonded and registered in their county. This is for your protection. Registration and bond information are available at the Sonoma County Clerks Office. If a person is acting as an LDA but is not registered and bonded, then they are operating illegally in California. The Bond is for your protection!
SONOMA COUNTY LDA is a DBA of AMZA SERVICES Inc. a Caifornia S Corporation. All subsidiaries and DBA’s operate under AMZA SERVICES INC.