The bond between parents and children is usually one of the strongest in most people’s lives, so it’s no surprise that one of the hot-button issues in many divorces and legal separations is that of child custody. For those new to the area, the terminology used in custody battles can be confusing. Taking just a few minutes to understand the basics can help make the situation less intimidating.
Most states recognize two basic types of custody: physical and legal. Although custody laws vary from state to state, you can learn some of the general principles of custody below.
Physical Custody: Where the Child Will Live
As you might expect, “physical” custody relates to where a child will live. A court may grant physical custody to both parents, requiring the child to split time between the parents’ homes. When this happens, it is known as “joint physical custody.” The child’s time is usually not split evenly; however, the child spends time regularly and frequently with both parents.
In the alternative, a court may grant physical custody to one parent. This is known as “sole physical custody.” When this happens, the parent who does not have custody is usually given visitation rights. Although visitation varies from case to case, one common arrangement is for the child to visit with the noncustodial parent every other weekend and to spend some holidays and parts of school vacations with that parent, as well.
Legal Custody: Who Will Make Decisions
The second major type of custody is known as “legal” custody. This term relates to who has the right (and responsibility) to make major decisions for the child. Here are some examples of major decision areas:
- Extracurricular activities;
- Religious; and
- Medical and dental care.
As with physical custody, legal custody may be designated as “joint” or “sole.” When a court orders sole legal custody, for example, that parent has both the right and responsibility to make decisions about major aspects of the child’s life.
Nationwide, judges make physical and legal custody decisions that they believe are in the best interest of children. Often, the parents may agree to how they want to handle these issues. However, even when this happens and the parents’ agreement is properly committed to writing, the judge in the case will still evaluate the agreement to make sure it serves the best interest of the child.
The specific laws and rules for custody vary on a state-by-state basis. If you want to learn more about how custody laws apply to your situation, you should consult with a licensed attorney where you live.