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The Various Types of Child Custody

The legal terms used for child custody can be confusing. While most people have a general idea of what child custody means, not everyone knows the difference between the different types of custody. Which type of child custody is better for your particular situation?

This article will address the types of child custody: physical custody; legal custody; sole custody; and joint custody.

Physical Custody

Physical custody is one of the most commonly understood forms of child custody. If a parent has been granted physical custody of a child by a court, the parent has the right to have the child live with them. In some states, an award of joint physical custody is possible when a child will be staying with each parent for significant periods of time.

In most situations, joint physical custody will be awarded when the parents of the child live relatively close to each other. If the parents live too far apart, the strain on the child may play a role in awarding one parent or the other sole physical custody.

Sole physical custody is the term used when a child lives with one parent while the other parent only has limited visitation and/or custody rights. As an example, a mother could have sole physical custody where the child spends lives with her and only visits the father for a few hours on the weekend.

Legal Custody

If a parent has been awarded sole legal custody of a child, this means that the parent has the legal authority to make decisions about the child's education, health, and upbringing. The parent with legal custody of a child will have the authority to decide which school to send the child to, which religion the child will practice, and what sorts of medical care the child will receive. Many states regularly award joint legal custody after a divorce. This means that parents will have to cooperate and make joint decisions about their child's upbringing.

If one parent in a joint legal custody arrangement takes decision-making powers away from the other parent (perhaps by making unilateral decisions about a child's education), the other parent can go back to court to get a judge to enforce the joint legal custody order, or perhaps award the non-offending parent sole custody.

If you feel that the other parent in the joint legal custody arrangement is making it hard or impossible to make decisions simply to spite you, you are able to go back to court to attempt to get sole legal custody of your child. However, many states and courts are reluctant to grant sole legal custody as they feel that having both parents looking out for the interests of the child is preferable to just one.

Sole Custody

Sole custody is used when one parent is unfit to parent a child. A judge can award sole legal or physical custody of a child to one parent. Sole physical custody is often awarded in divorce proceedings when it can be shown that one parent is unfit, often due to financial, drug, or alcohol problems. If one parent has taken to living with a new partner who is deemed unfit to care for or be around the child, then sole physical custody may also be awarded to the other parent.

Recently courts have been allowing joint legal custody even when sole physical custody is awarded to one parent. In addition, even if sole physical custody is awarded, there has been a push to allow more lenient visitation rights for the parent that does not live with the child.

Joint Custody

If the parents of a child do not live together but share the responsibilities of making decisions about the child or housing the child, they are engaging in the joint legal or physical custody of the child. Joint custody can be joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or both joint legal and physical custody.

For couples that share joint physical custody, it is pretty common for them to share joint legal custody as well. However, the opposite is not necessarily the case. Parents that share joint legal custody will not always share joint physical custody.

Joint Custody Arrangements

When parents share joint physical custody of a child, they will often draw up a joint custody arrangement (sometimes called a parenting agreement) that they will present to the judge to be ratified. This arrangement is based on the parents' work schedules, the child's school schedule, and the needs of the child. For parents that live close together (meaning that getting to school for the child is not a problem from either house), it's fairly common for parents to rotate alternating weeks with the child. In addition, when parents live a bit farther apart, it can be common to have a joint physical arrangement where the child will stay primarily with one parent, but split weekends and holidays between the two.

Lastly, some rare custody arrangements allow the child to remain in the family home while the parents move in and out according to the custody arrangement. This is often called a "bird's nest custody arrangement," and can be beneficial to young children that attach their emotions to the family home.

Joint Custody Pros and Cons

It's useful to consider the pros and cons of the different types of child custody arrangements. One of the main advantages of joint custody for the children is that they get to remain in contact with both of their parents and continue their relationships on both sides. In addition, joint custody has the advantage of placing an equal load on both parents in terms of the burdens of raising the child.

However, joint custody arrangements also have their disadvantages as well. For instance, the children subject to the arrangement must be continually taken back and forth between homes, and if either parent has any ill will towards the other, it can have negative side effects on the children. Lastly, it can become expensive to keep two homes for a child.

Which Child Custody Type Works for You?

Child custody cases are legally complicated and put quite a bit of emotional stress on parents and children. Getting professional feedback from an expert can help you make the right decisions. If you are involved in a messy divorce, it is always best to keep in mind that a child is not a bargaining chip that can be used to hurt your ex. Arguing for sole custody just for the sake of hurting your ex is never wise and will most likely hurt your child in the end.

If you have questions about the various types of child custody and which may be best for your child, your best option is to speak with a local family law attorney.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified child custody attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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