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What never-married parents need to know about child custody

You and your partner haven't worked as a couple for a while now. The love that used to be there seems to have vanished, and you both know you would have broken up long ago if it weren't for those two beautiful children you share.

You're worried your kids could be swept out of your life if you split up, but just what does California law say when it comes to unmarried parents and custody?

In theory, the law states that parents who never tied the knot shouldn't be treated any differently from divorcing parents. But some circumstances – such as if the parents didn't live together – could make things slightly different.

California courts will look at patterns established in the parent/child relationship to determine how to proceed with custody. How often does each parent take the kids to the doctor? Help with homework? Change the diapers? Read the bedtime stories? All of these factors can be taken into consideration. If you've lived together as a family, parents hopefully have shared those duties.

If one parent is moving out of a shared home, the judge likely will ask about living arrangements at a new home before deciding on custody. Will the children have their own beds? Is the new home childproofed? Will they need to change schools? Is there suitable afterschool care available?

If you have been an involved and active parent throughout your child's life, a judge will look favorably on shared custody if there are satisfactory answers to those questions. It is always preferable for children to have two parents in their lives.

In the case of parents who haven't ever lived with the child, the court might start with limited custody, which allows the children to adjust to new circumstances. The court could also include a plan where that parent's time with the kids can increase incrementally as everyone gets used to the new arrangement.

Custody can be more complicated in the case of unmarried parents, so you'll want a family law attorney on your side to help you present your best case. Your time with your children is at stake.

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