Prior to the twentieth century, common law jurisdictions typically treated children as the property of the father, and thus following divorce the father would gain custody as a matter of course. With the development of psychological science over the twentieth century, most jurisdictions completely transformed this presumption of paternal custody, instead imposing the so-called "tender years" doctrine which held that absent extraordinary circumstances young children should always be placed in the custody of their mothers.
As it became apparent that both of these models were fundamentally flawed - two sides of the same bad penny - a wide assortment of alternative models arose, each of which attempts to discern the custodial arrangement that is in the "best interests" of the children. Typically, these models include a presumption that the parent who served as the primary caregiver during a marriage should be the primary custodian following divorce.
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For more information, contact the Family Law Offices of Renee M. Marcelle at (415) 456-4444, or online at http://www.familylawmarin.com/