This Child Custody 101 article was crafted for one thing – to help simplify a complex subject. By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll have a better understanding of the terminology often used when referring to the subject.
Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody
This is a big one, so let’s start with it. At a high level, there are two types of custody – legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to the parent’s responsibility to make decisions regarding the child’s health, education and overall well-being. Physical custody is just like it sounds – it refers to who lives with the child.
Within those two buckets are several types of custody. Here are the most common.
Sole Custody of a Child
This parent is solely responsible for the child. This means exclusive physical and legal custody. The parent without custody has limited access to the child. This is often called visitation.
Note that visitation doesn’t mean the parent can only see the child on rare occasions. It just means they don’t have the right to make decisions regarding where the child lives or things like education or the primary physician.
Joint Custody of a Child
Joint custody means both parents have rights and responsibilities to care for the child. The first thing that may come to mind is a 50/50 split. In reality that’s difficult for everyone, so usually the responsibilities and time spent with the child lean more towards one parent than the other. Ideally, the time would be split as evenly as possible, and both parents would participate in major decisions affecting the child.
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This is where the parents alternate taking care of the child. For example, it may be that the mother keeps the children for 5 days a week, and the father keeps them for the weekend. Or maybe they stay with one parent for 3 days, then go back to the other parent’s home for another 3 days. Every family has a different arrangement that works for them. What’s important is that it works for everyone and both parents are still involved in the child’s life.
More Types of Custody
Most situations end up in one of the situations listed above. Here are a few others that sometimes occur.
Bird’s Nest – This is where a child lives in the same home all the time and the parents move in and out. The benefit is more consistency for the child but can be hard on the parents.
Serial – This is where a child lives with one parent for a certain period of time (Ex: until they’re a teenager) and then they move in with the other parent for a certain time increment.
Third-party – If the courts determine the parents are unfit to care for the kids, they can grant custody to another family member such as an aunt, uncle, grandparent or older sibling.
Split – This is usually seen as a last resort, as it is hard on the entire family. Split custody is where one parent takes some children, and the other parent takes the others. This is difficult because children benefit from being with their siblings. Even if their parents have joint or alternating custody and the children are constantly moving from one parent’s home to the other, at least they always have each other. Split custody removes that and makes things complex.
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