What Is the Difference between Custody, Parentage, and Paternity?


The terms custody, parentage, and paternity are used frequently in family law, but the distinctions between them can lead to confusion. Because understanding your rights as a parent is paramount, better understanding the related terminology is an excellent idea. If you have a legal concern related to custody, parentage, or paternity, seeking the professional legal counsel of an experienced California family law attorney is in your best interest.

Parentage and Paternity

Paternity identifies a child’s father, and although paternity is a form of parentage, there can be a distinction between the two. Let’s take a closer look at these two related concepts.


When a couple is married, the parentage of any children born to them is established. When the parents are not married, however, the father’s paternity must be established. When both parents are in agreement on the matter of the father’s paternity, it can be established with a Voluntary Declaration of Paternity, but if either party disagrees regarding the paternity of the child, it will need to be established through the court. When there is a legal question about who a child’s father is, it is referred to as paternity. In this situation, paternity and parentage are one and the same.


The parentage of a child’s biological mother is generally not in question, but this does not mean that parentage concerns always relate to paternity. When two women who are not married co-parent a child together, the birth mother has full parental rights, but the other woman’s parentage must be established in order for her to be considered a legal parent. Often this is achieved by establishing that the couple’s intention was to parent the child together – and then proceeding to do so. The same is true in situations in which the couple consists of two men (one of whom is the biological father of the child in question). Parentage generally refers to establishing the parental rights of someone who is not the child’s biological parent.


Custody is distinct from both paternity and parentage. Custody refers to who has the right to make important decisions on the part of the involved children (legal custody) and to how both parents divide their time between the children (physical custody). Either can be shared by both parents (joint custody) or can be awarded to one parent alone (sole custody).

Legal Custody

The kinds of primary parenting decisions that are addressed by legal custody include:

  • Decisions about schooling and childcare
  • Decisions about religious upbringing
  • Healthcare decisions
  • Decisions about extracurricular activities, travel, and vacations

Physical Custody

Physical custody determines how the parents will be splitting their time with their shared children post-divorce (or after a breakup). Sometimes, one parent becomes the primary custodial parent, and the children make their primary home with him or her. Other times, the parents split their time with the children more evenly, but joint custody does not necessarily mean splitting visitation right down the middle.

Visitation Orders

Visitation orders in California fall into four basic categories.

Visitation According to a Schedule

A detailed visitation plan helps many parents who are no longer together address their unique scheduling needs while minimizing scheduling conflicts and confusion.

Reasonable Visitation

Parents who remain amicable and who are able to keep the lines of communication open may not need a set visitation schedule. Reasonable visitation orders skip the detailed scheduling and allow parents to work out their visitation schedules as they go (in accordance with what works for them).

Supervised Visitation

If the court determines that it is in the best interest of a child’s safety and well-being to be supervised during his or her visits with one parent, supervised visitation will be ordered – in which the child’s other parent, another adult, or a professional agency provides supervision. Sometimes these supervised visits are ordered to allow a parent and child to get to know one another before having less-restrictive visitation.

No Visitation

While courts generally believe that maintaining contact with both parents is in a child’s best interest, judges will order no visitation if such interaction is determined to be either physically or emotionally detrimental to the child.

An Experienced California Family Law Attorney Can Help

If you are facing a parentage, paternity, or custody concern, it affects your rights as a parent, which makes it of critical importance. If this is the challenging situation you find yourself in, look no further than a practiced California family law attorney for the legal guidance you need.