What Are The Different Types Of Child Custody?

Written by Laura Sands and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Legal cases involving child custody can be complicated. Understanding what custody means, how it works, and how a court may arrive at a child custody decision is imperative for anyone who has children or plans to do so in the future. Such knowledge is particularly important for parents who are not a couple or for those who are but are considering separation or divorce. Here’s a look at the different types of child custody and how they relate to one another. 

What is Child Custody?

Generally speaking, child custody is a term used to describe who will be responsible for a child’s life. Typically, custody initially lies with one or both of a child’s birth parents, but custody can also be transferred to other family members, adopted parents, and other caregivers. From a legal point of view, child custody refers to one or more people who are able to physically care for a child, as well as take legal responsibility for all matters pertaining to a child’s well-being.

Often, when referring to child custody matters, the discussion revolves around a child’s birth parents. When two parents end a romantic or marital partnership, their relationship and responsibilities to their offspring continue. This is true even when the parents did not have an agreed upon relationship with one another, but consensual sexual activity led to them conceiving a child together. Regardless of whether parents were never an actual couple or whether they were once a couple who’ve agreed to separate or divorce, there may be times when a court has to decide on child custody and support matters.

The Different Types of Child Custody

Child custody can take on many different forms. From a legal point of view, these forms are either:

  • Sole Legal Custody
  • Sole Physical Custody
  • Joint Legal Custody
  • Joint Physical Custody
  • Sole Legal and Physical Custody

Joint” custody arrangements refer to those shared by both parents, while a “sole” custody type refers to the responsibility being granted to only one parent. In any of these scenarios, visitation is not automatically granted or taken away but is left to the discretion of the judge ruling on custody matters.

What is Physical Custody?

Physical Custody refers to where a child will actually reside. When two parents live separately, this type of custody decides which parent the child will live with. Children may still be allowed to visit the other parent, but when one parent is awarded physical custody, that parent will be solely responsible for providing permanent shelter and a safe environment for a child. The parent who has physical custody of a child may also have legal custody, but this is not always the case.

What is Legal Custody?

Legal custody refers to who will make official decisions in a child’s best interest and on her behalf. A parent who is awarded legal custody over a child may decide things like where a child attends school, what kinds of instruction a child receives, what kind of medical treatment may be administered, and which religion a child may be taught. The parent who has legal custody of a child may also have physical custody, but this is not always the case. 

What is Joint Custody?

Joint child custody simply identifies both parents as sharing in the care of a child. Depending on a judge’s orders, joint custody can result in joint physical custody, joint legal custody, or both. In cases of joint physical custody, a child may live with one parent part-time and another parent at other times. For example, a joint custody arrangement may result in one parent caring for a child Sunday through mid-day Wednesday, while the other parent may be responsible for the child’s physical care the remainder of Wednesday through Saturday.

Exact days, dates, and times may be worked out between both parents and a court may approve of such a schedule. Or, in cases where parents cannot agree upon a schedule, a court may assign exact dates and times for a child’s care.

How Does a Judge Decide on Custody Matters?

Many parents choose to define their own custody arrangements. Parents who struggle with healthy communication and who find it difficult to cooperate with one another may rely upon the family court system to assist with child custody matters. When a child custody case is brought before a judge, several things are taken into consideration. The court’s first priority lies in determining what type of custody arrangement will be in the best interest of the child. In doing so, a period of investigation will ensue where the following will be closely examined:

Environment

As stated, a court’s first concern is what will be best for a child at the center of a child custody battle. Before this can be properly decided, a judge will want to know what kind of living environment both parents can provide. The safety, stability, and comfort of a parent’s home are all closely examined before a judge will rule on whether an environment is a healthy one for a child.

Education

Among other things, children require consistency and stability in order to thrive. Such is particularly important for school-aged children. Minors already attending a school where they are thriving academically and socially often weighs into a judge’s decision about how custody will be determined. Both parents living within close proximity to a child’s school may be ideal, but when one parent lives within a decent proximity to a child’s existing school and the other lives too far away for a child to comfortably commute to school, a judge may use this information to favor one parent’s home over another for physical custody.

Needs

Basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing, and security are always factored into a judge’s decision about child custody. Beyond this, however, a judge may weigh needs like communication or even a child’s special physical or mental needs. For example, if a child has a closer bond to one parent or finds it easier to communicate with one parent over another, that may be factored into a judge’s decision. Children with special needs that one parent has more experience attending to than the other may also be considered.

Some of the other considerations a judge may ponder before making a child custody decision are:

  • The child’s age
  • The child’s closeness to other siblings who may not be included in the custody case
  • How well the child knows each parent
  • The environment each parent lives in and what a child may be exposed to in that environment
  • Each parent’s willingness to cooperate with the other parent and allow the other parent access to the child
  • Each parent’s mental fitness and ability with regard to child-rearing
  • The time each parent has available to commit to child-rearing

While a variety of factors weigh into a judge’s decision about child custody, these are just a few of the most basic elements she is likely to consider before rendering a decision.

Do Children Have a Say?

Children who are able to understand the basic concept of their parents not living together are often consulted about their own feelings, wants, and desires. The older a child is, the more the court may use the child’s input in arriving at a custody decision. As much as possible, courts will find ways to approach such delicate matters in ways that do not stress children or rely on them to make a sometimes difficult choice between two parents.

Must a Court Be Involved?

It should be noted that a judge’s ruling is not always necessary in determining child custody. Upon separation, most parents prefer to create their own arrangements for the care and management of any minor children they share. While personal arrangements can work well for the child and both parents, there may be times when parents are unwilling to agree on things like where a child will live, attend school, or what religion a child will be taught. When conflict persists, cases are often brought before a magistrate to decide.

What About Child Support?

Child custody may also be separate from child support. When decided upon by a judge, financial contributions to a child’s well-being may take into account who a child resides with, but other factors not relating to custody may also be used by a judge when making a decision.

Is a Judge’s Decision Final?

Decisions regarding child custody are often appealed and many can be adjusted throughout a child’s lifetime. As a child matures and lifestyles change, a judge may amend a case accordingly. Bearing in mind that the court’s foremost priority is a child’s best interest, it is sometimes necessary to make adjustments to a custody order in an effort to accommodate those interests.

Additional Details

Each child custody case is different and judges tend to take each family’s unique circumstances into account before arriving at a decision. Laws regarding custody and visitation may also vary from state-to-state. For more information on divorce or tips on child custody battles, please refer to our other articles on this topic or seek help from a qualified family attorney in your state.

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