Types of Child Custody

Learn the difference between legal custody, physical custody, sole custody and joint custody.

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Physical Custody

Physical custody means that a parent has the right to have a child live with him or her. Some states will award joint physical custody when the child spends significant amounts of time with both parents. Joint physical custody works best if parents live relatively close to each other, as it lessens the stress on children and allows them to maintain a somewhat normal routine.

Where the child lives primarily with one parent and has visitation with the other, generally the parent with whom the child primarily lives (called the "custodial" parent) will have sole or primary physical custody, and the other parent (the noncustodial parent) will have the right to visitation or parenting time with his or her child.

Legal Custody

Legal custody of a child means having the right and the obligation to make decisions about a child's upbringing. A parent with legal custody can make decisions about the child's schooling, religious upbringing and medical care, for example. In many states, courts regularly award joint legal custody, which means that the decision making is shared by both parents.

If you share joint legal custody with the other parent and you exclude him or her from the decision-making process, your ex can take you back to court and ask the judge to enforce the custody agreement. You won't get fined or go to jail, but it will probably be embarrassing and cause more friction between the two of you -- which may harm the children. What's more, if you're represented by an attorney, it's sure to be expensive.

If you believe the circumstances between you and your child's other parent make it impossible to share joint legal custody (the other parent won't communicate with you about important matters or is abusive), you can go to court and ask for sole legal custody. But, in many states, joint legal custody is preferred, so you will have to convince a family court judge that it is not in the best interests of your child.

To learn more about child custody and how it is determined in your state, see the Child Custody & Paternity section on DivorceNet.com (part of the Nolo network of legal websites). 

Sole Custody

One parent can have either sole legal custody or sole physical custody of a child. Courts generally won't hesitate to award sole physical custody to one parent if the other parent is deemed unfit -- for example, because of alcohol or drug dependency or charges of child abuse or neglect.

However, in most states, courts are moving away from awarding sole custody to one parent and toward enlarging the role both parents play in their children's lives. Even where courts do award sole physical custody, the parties often still share joint legal custody, and the noncustodial parent enjoys a generous visitation schedule. In these situations, the parents would make joint decisions about the child's upbringing, but one parent would be deemed the primary physical caretaker, while the other parent would have visitation rights under a parenting agreement or schedule.

It goes without saying that there may be animosity between you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse. But it's best not to seek sole custody unless the other parent truly causes direct harm to the children. Even then, courts may still allow the other parent supervised visitation.

Joint Custody

Parents who don't live together have joint custody (also called shared custody) when they share the decision-making responsibilities for, and/or physical control and custody of, their children. Joint custody can exist if the parents are divorced, separated, or no longer cohabiting, or even if they never lived together. Joint custody may be:

  • joint legal custody
  • joint physical custody (where the children spend a significant portion of time with each parent), or
  • joint legal and physical custody.

Find information on Child Custody: Best Interests of the Child laws in your state.

Joint Custody Arrangements

When parents share joint custody, they ususally work out a schedule according to their work requirements, housing arrangements and the children's needs. If the parents cannot agree on a schedule, the court will impose an arrangement. A common pattern is for children to split weeks between each parent's house or apartment. Other joint physical custody arrangements include:

  • alternating months, years, or six-month periods, or
  • spending weekends and holidays with one parent, while spending weekdays with the other.

There is even a joint custody arrangement where the children remain in the family home and the parents take turns moving in and out, spending their out time in separate housing of their own. This is commonly called "bird's nest custody" or "nesting."

Pros and Cons of Joint Custody

Joint custody has the advantages of assuring the children continuing contact and involvement with both parents. And it alleviates some of the burdens of parenting for each parent.

There are, of course, disadvantages:

  • Children must be shuttled around.
  • Parental noncooperation or ill will can have seriously negative effects on children.
  • Maintaining two homes for the children can be expensive.

If you have a joint custody arrangement, maintain detailed and organized financial records of your expenses. Keep receipts for groceries, school and after-school activities, clothing and medical care. At some point, your ex may claim he or she has spent more money on the kids than you have, and a judge will appreciate your detailed records.

For more information about child support, including how it's calculated, see DivorceNet's section on Child Support.

For more on child custody arrangements, see Building a Parenting Agreement That Works: How to Put Your Kids First When Your Marriage Doesn't Last, by Mimi E. Lyster (Nolo).

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