A new law for 2019 lets California divorce courts to think about pets caught in custody fights between divorcing couples more like the way courts think about children. Judges no longer must think of a pet as property to fight over.

For some California humans, including those considering divorce, the news of this change might have raised some questions. How does California decide custody of children? If the issue is not parents’ rights, what is it?

The answer may be obvious and, at least at first, simple. The best interests of the children guide judges when deciding custody.

The two pillars of a California child’s best interest

Los Angeles County says that our children come first.

The child’s best interest depends partly on the health and safety of the child’s mind and body mental and physical. The court thinks about how well the parents can keep a livable home and meet basic food, clothing, medical and education needs.

Of course, any issues having to do with drug or alcohol problems, sexual abuse or any kind of violence will matter to the court.

Also, the child benefits from close, healthy and long-term relationships with both parents. Any parent not committed to that idea or who plans to take the child away from their extended family may face a closer look from the court.

If the judge thinks the child is mature enough, the child’s own wishes must be a factor in the decision.

What is not considered

The court’s single-minded focus on the child’s best interest has not always been the law.

Some old laws and customs have been set aside since they no longer seem useful in deciding the child’s interests. Orange County’s court system offers a handy reminder.

The state no longer automatically gives mothers custody or more parenting time than fathers. Issues like disability, sexual orientation, religion or even marriage status no longer decide things, at least not without good reason.

The court would rather not see a fight

Parents do not have to fight to win. In fact, if the parents have not already agreed on what they want to happen, the court will make them try mediation to work out a custody agreement and a full parenting plan. Only if all else fails will the couple face a judge who will make the decisions.

No matter if the judge must force a plan on a couple or approve one, they have already drawn up, state law requires that everyone focus on doing what is in the child’s best interest.