California Court Explains How a History of Domestic Violence Affects Custody Rights

Domestic violence is a serious issue impacting many San Diego family cases. While all accusations of domestic violence should be taken seriously, they do not all have the same impact when it comes to the outcome of divorce and custody actions. The Courts will, generally, consider relatively recent evidence that a person engaged in domestic violence when determining how to resolve disputed issues in custody matters, as explained in a recent ruling issued by a California Court. The Court can also consider a pattern of conduct including convictions for domestic violence under Penal Code Section 273.5 among others. If you want to understand how allegations that you or your co-parent engaged in acts of domestic violence may alter your custody rights, it is critical to consult a San Diego child custody attorney as soon as possible.

Factual and Procedural Background of the Case

Reportedly, the mother, who was married to the father, filed a petition for dissolution of the marriage in 2015. Six years after the filing, the Court conducted a six-day trial on the issues of custody and visitation. It then issued a final custody order in which it granted the parents joint physical and legal custody of their daughter, who was seven years old at the time.

It is alleged that the mother objected to the order, arguing that the Court erred in granting the father parental rights, as California Family Code 3044 presumes that a party that committed domestic violence within the past five years should not be granted physical or legal custody of a child. The mother asserted that the five-year period in question should run backward from the date the petition for dissolution of marriage was filed instead of from the time the Court issued the custody order. The Court rejected this argument, defining it as impractical construction. The mother then appealed.

Key Dates in the Subject Case

The Court affirmed the Trial Court’s ruling on appeal. The Court explained that the appeal focused on two key dates: January 2015, which is when the mother filed her petition for dissolution, and February 2021, which is when the Court conducted the trial on visitation and custody issues. Neither party filed objections to the Court’s proposed statement of decision after the hearing, and therefore, the Court issued orders granting joint legal and physical custody to the parties.

The Reasoning Behind the Trial Court’s Ruling

The Court noted that during the hearing, both the mother and the father accused one another of domestic violence during the relationship and offered the Court evidence in support of their assertions. The Court ultimately found that both parties committed acts that could be considered domestic violence. The Court determined, however, that none of the domestic violence acts happened within five years of when the Court conducted the trial on the custody issues.

As such, the Court found that the California Family Code 3044 presumption against granting a person with a history of domestic violence custody rights applied. In other words, the Court adopted the position that the presumption would only go into effect if either party engaged in domestic violence within five years of when the Court issued findings with regard to a request for custody, not if they committed acts of domestic violence within five years of when the request was made.

The Standard of Review for Custody Determinations

Generally, the California Courts review child custody determinations for abuse of discretion. If the Trial Court’s decision involves conclusions of law that do not rely on disputed facts, the review is de novo. If the decision is backed by factual determinations, though, it will only be reversed if it is not supported by substantial evidence.

How a History of Domestic Violence Affects Custody Rights

The Court explained that California Family Code 3044 sets forth a presumption that is rebuttable, that a perpetrator of domestic violence should not be awarded custody of a child. The presumption occurs following a finding that a party seeking custody rights has engaged in domestic violence within the past five years. In the subject case, the mother set forth evidence during the trial indicating that throughout their relationship, the father engaged in acts of domestic violence against her. Following her assertions, she relied on California Family Code 3044 to argue that the Court should grant her sole physical and legal custody of the parties’ daughter.

The Trial Court declined to set forth specific findings explaining the extent to which it agreed with the mother’s view of the facts. Rather, the Trial Court merely found that none of the alleged acts of domestic violence happened within five years of when it conducted the custody trial, and on that ground, came to the conclusion that the presumption of California Family Code 3044 did not apply. As such, the Court granted joint legal and physical custody to both parties.

The mother asserted that the Trial Court erred in construing the point from which the five-year period should run. The Court noted that when interpreting a statute, it considered the language used by the Legislature first, and such words typically are the most reliable indicator of a statute’s intended purpose. Thus, if the words are not ambiguous, the Court will assume the Legislature meant what it said and will apply the statute’s plain meaning.

Here, California Family Code 3044 expressly states that the presumption against granting custody rights only arises following a finding by the Court that the party seeking custody of a child engaged in acts of domestic violence within the prior five years. The Court explained that the phrase prior five years referred back to the Court’s finding and that the language of the statute was unambiguous. Thus, it affirmed the Trial Court ruling.

Meet with an Experienced California Child Custody Attorney

Domestic violence allegations can drastically impair people’s parental rights, and if you or your co-parent has a history of engaging in domestic violence, it is important to meet with a lawyer to discuss your options. The experienced San Diego child custody attorneys of Doppelt and Forney APLC are proficient at helping people navigate contentious disputes over parental rights, and if we represent you, we will advocate zealously on your behalf. You can reach us through our online form or call us at 800-769-4748 to set up a free and confidential conference.

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