When it comes to the relationship between a parent and a child, the law intervenes in three main things. First, there is a concept called “legal custody.” A parent with legal custody has the right to make long-term decisions for a child, such as where the child will go to school, which doctor the child will see, and what kind of religious services he or she will attend. The second important concept is “physical custody.” The parent with physical custody basically decides where the child will sleep at night and makes day-to-day decisions like what the child will eat. The final concept is support, as states will often force one parent to pay support to the other parent to ensure the child is properly cared for.
Joint parental custody
Joint custody is the most common type of parental custody among divorced parents. In joint custody, divorced or unmarried parents will typically split both legal and physical custody. That means that major decisions will generally be made by both parents together.
Meanwhile, the child will typically split his or her time between each parent’s house. This can mean two weeks at mom’s place followed by two weeks at dad’s, but the split is not always even. Some parents will find it makes more sense to have one parent have the child for most of the time. This could be because one parent works less and is, therefore, more available to take care of the child, or it could simply be that the child has a preference to be with one parent.
Either way, giving up a share of physical custody does not necessarily mean the parent is giving up any legal parental custody rights.
Sole parental custody
Some parents will have sole custody of their children. This generally only occurs when one parent is absent or is denied custody because he or she committed abuse. In a sole custody situation, the parent with sole custody can make all the decisions for the child, both long and short-term. The other (noncustodial) parent may still have visitation rights but generally cannot challenge the custodial parent’s decisions.
Sole custody is not always permanent, either. For example, a parent that is struggling with substance abuse may temporarily give up joint custody but then seek to have partial custody again after getting treatment.
A parent with custody will sometimes be entitled to child support. Child support is basically an obligation for the noncustodial parent to contribute to the cost of raising the child. Each state deals with support a little differently, and they do not even agree on the point of child support. Some states say that child support is needed to ensure that the child gets the same standard of living as if the parents were still together. Other states try to simply even out the two households so that each parent is living about the same lifestyle. Some states simply require the noncustodial parent to pay enough to keep the child out of poverty. Either way, any custodial parent should be exploring the issue of child support.