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Custody Overview

Child custody and visitation are often primary concerns of parents going through a divorce. These also tend to be the most emotionally difficult legal processes in a divorce where minor children are involved. Below, you will find introductory information on child custody and visitation, answers to common questions about visitation, and information on how custody decisions are made. In addition, this section also includes some practical considerations for parenting after a divorce, such as virtual visitation and how to help ease the strain of divorce on children.

The Different Types of Child Custody: Overview

Since courts cannot "split the baby," so to speak, divorcing parents are granted various types of custody with respect to dependant children. Family courts are supposed to base these decisions on the best interests of the children, rather than the personal preferences of the parents. Most courts prioritize the importance of both parents' presence in the lives of their children, but will grant one party sole custody in some instances.

Here are the main child custody terms considered by family courts in a divorce case:

  • Physical Custody - As you might guess, physical custody refers to which parent has physical possession of the child; courts rarely award one parent sole physical custody
  • Legal Custody - A parent with legal custody is able to make important life decisions on behalf of the child, even if the other parent has sole physical custody; a parent who is absent or unable to make these decisions will not be granted legal custody in most cases
  • Joint Custody - This is the most common type of child custody, in which the child spends time with both parents separately
  • Split Custody - Split custody, which is very rare, is when the children are split between the two households (courts prefer keeping siblings together)

Factors Affecting Custody Decisions

The guiding factor in any child custody decision is "the child's best interests," which isn't always that simple to determine. Sometimes children are independently evaluated by psychologists or social workers to help the court reach a conclusion. State laws differ, but courts generally consider the following factors when deciding custody cases:

  • The child's own wishes, above a certain age (varies by state)
  • The health of the parents, both mental and physical
  • Evidence of parental substance abuse
  • Adjustment to the community and school of a given parent
  • Religious or cultural considerations
  • Stability of either home
  • Ability to interact with other relatives and extended family members


Visitation is an important aspect of child custody, as it mandates limited times when the noncustodial parent may visit with his or her child. But even if a judge orders "reasonable visitation," the details typically must be worked out by the parents themselves. Generally, the custodial parent has the most influence over visitation times and terms. Noncustodial parents who believe they are not getting fair visitation with their child may call for a court hearing on the matter.

Click on a link below to learn more about the basics of child custody.

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