In a divorce, custody of children may be awarded jointly to the former couple or, if circumstances warrant, a court may give sole legal custody to only one of the parents. But what happens if a parent with sole custody makes a decision that the other parent thinks is not in the best interests of the child?

That was the question presented to the California Court of Appeal in a recent case (In re Marriage of C.D. and G.D.)

C.D. and G.D. married in 2013 and had twin daughters in 2017. Soon thereafter, C.D., the mother of the girls, petitioned to dissolve the marriage. The Ventura County Superior Court approved the dissolution petition. After finding that the father, G.D., had sexually abused the girls, the court granted C.D. sole legal custody. It barred G.D. from visiting his daughters but did not terminate his parental rights.

In 2022, C.D. decided to home-school the twins, using online educational resources designed for teaching kindergarteners.

The father objected, asking the court to order C.D. to enroll the children in public school.  He argued that C.D. deprived the children of a formal education, she was not competent to teach them herself, and that she was isolating the girls and limiting their ability to socialize with other children.

G.D., a state-certified high school teacher, claimed he was better equipped than the girls’ mother to decide on matters related to their education.

C.D. responded that she had been awarded sole legal custody, and absent a court order, G.D. had no right to dictate how she educated their daughters.  Also, C.D. believed that the online homeschooling program was educationally effective, and that the girls' extracurricular activities such as karate classes and attending Sunday school and play dates provided them with adequate socialization.

A mediator was appointed but was unable to resolve the differences between the parents.

Later, testifying as an expert on family custody issues, the mediator opined that attending in-person schools would be in the twins’ best interest. They would spend more time with other children and less with adults and would regularly be seen by teachers and other school professionals who could evaluate their behavior.

The trial court granted the father’s request, issuing an order directing C.D. to enroll the girls in public school.

The mother appealed, and won a resounding victory from the appellate court, with the court concluding that a parent with sole legal custody has “the right and the responsibility to make the decisions relating to the health, education, and welfare of a child.”

Because the twins’ mother had sole legal custody of the girls, their father had no right or responsibility concerning their education.

The court reasoned that once a custody order is in place, the courts must preserve the established mode of custody “unless some significant change in circumstances indicates that a different arrangement would be in the child’s best interest.”

To obtain the right to have a say in the twins’ schooling, the father would have had to secure joint legal custody by showing a significant change in circumstances, which he had not done.

“The trial court erred when it granted Father’s request for an order directing Mother to send their daughters to public school,” the justices ruled.

They ordered the lower court to reverse its ruling and deny G.D.’s request, and awarded C.D. her costs on appeal.

By Jessica Stemple