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Types of Child Custody

You've probably heard the various types of custody tossed around, but do you really know the difference between legal custody and physical custody? How about the legal definition of joint custody? Whether a couple agrees on custody issues or is battling it out in court, it's helpful to have information to deal with the child-focused parts of your divorce. Divorcing parents' rights with respect to their children will vary depending on the type of custody that is agreed upon or ordered by the court. Below, you will find tips on the key differences among legal custody, physical custody, sole custody, joint custody, and more.

Types of Child Custody at a Glance

With the goal of serving the child's own best interests, courts are tasked with deciding which parent is entitled to legal and physical custody, and whether there is room for compromise. Co-parenting is difficult enough when a couple is married and living together, but can be doubly hard when parents are separated. Courts must juggle various factors when making this important decision, but custody orders may always be revisited in court as circumstances change.

Sole vs. Joint Custody

When we refer to "sole custody," we are typically referring to a court ordered arrangement wherein one parent has both legal and physical custody of the child. The noncustodial parent may have limited visitation, but likely has been determined to be unfit to parent for a given reason. Most custody arrangements are "joint custody," which generally refers to a shared legal custody even if only one parent has physical custody.

Legal Custody

If a parent has legal custody of her child, it means she has the court-granted right to make important, long-term life decisions on behalf of the child. This includes choice of schools, religious education, health care, discipline, and other areas of life. Both parents are granted legal custody of their children in the majority of child custody cases, unless one parent is determined to be incapable of making such decisions.

When only one parent has legal custody, it is called "sole legal custody." Even if the noncustodial parent has visitation rights, he or she may not make important long-term decisions involving the child. If both parents have joint legal custody, then intentionally excluding the other parent in the decision-making process may be considered contempt of court.

Physical Custody

If you are divorced and your minor children live with you, then you have physical custody. Most courts tend to award one parent sole physical custody, while the noncustodial parent has visitation rights. Even when it is determined that the child needs to spend time with both parents in order to thrive, courts are increasingly reluctant to award joint physical custody because of the disruptions it causes children. The most common arrangement is one in which one parent has sole physical custody, both parents have legal custody, and the noncustodial parent is granted visitation time.

Visitation is usually worked out between the two parents, since it typically involves detailed logistics and may require occasional trade-offs and last-minute changes. A parent with visitation rights usually spends every-other weekend, certain holidays, and summer vacations with their child.

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