Child custody battles are common in divorce and family law cases. As with most legal matters, it’s never entirely black and white. It’s important to know the four types of child custody—the differences, similarities, and what each means. Knowing what options exist helps determine which type or types of custody best fits your situation.
The term “child custody” is a broad, overarching term. It covers everything related to the welfare and upbringing of a child. This includes parental rights, obligations, and more.
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4 Types Of Custody
1) Legal Custody
According to the Superior Court of California, legal custody determines the parent “who makes important decisions for your children (like health care, education, and welfare).”
In short, this type of custody gives a parent the right to make decisions about their child’s life.
Sole legal custody means one parent alone holds the right and responsibility to make decisions regarding the children’s school, doctors, and general welfare.
Joint legal custody means both parents share the decision-making rights and responsibilities. They cooperate on all of the important decision-making.
When you have legal custody, you decide how a child will be raised. This empowers you to make a wide breadth of decisions. For instance, you decide what schools the children attend, how they spend their free time, what extracurricular activities they participate in, even what religion they practice.
Joint legal custody is when both parents hold decision-making power.
This frequently becomes contentious when parents disagree on key topics. In situations where both parents struggle to reach a consensus, they often must turn to a judge to determine who makes the final decision.
Sole legal custody designates one person has the legal authority to make major decisions on behalf of the child.
This eliminates conflicts that arise during disagreements over decision-making. It can reduce tension, though it can lead to resentment on the part of the parent who doesn’t have a say.
This type of custody most commonly occurs in situations where one parent is absent and unavailable to contribute to making decisions regarding a child’s upbringing.
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2) Physical Custody
Physical custody is when a parent has the right to have the child live in his or her house. Where and when the children live falls under the umbrella of this type of custody.
Often in these situations, the other parent has visitation. The extent, however, depends on the circumstances. There may be unsupervised weekends or holiday overnights. Or the court may order only supervised visits for a few hours.
The implications of how courts award physical custody should not be minimized. Where a child lives and their daily routines set the standard for many future decisions made by the court.
Like legal custody, physical custody can be sole or jointly shared. In situations where a judge awards joint physical custody, it doesn’t guarantee both parties get exactly the same amount of time.
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3) Sole Custody
Sole custody is when the child lives with one parent exclusively and that parent has legal and physical custody of a child.
One parent maintains the power to make all the pertinent decisions regarding the child’s upbringing and welfare.
Though you can petition for this, most courts avoid it if possible. The common logic holds that having both parents in a child’s life is in their best interest.
This type of custody arrangement only comes up in a handful of situations. If it’s unsafe for the child, it’s impossible for the parents to work together, or the other parent is unfit, the court can order this. If you push for this, you will have to prove shared custody isn’t in the child’s best interest.
Like we said above, the court generally does not award sole custody unless there are extenuating circumstances. This most often occurs in situations when one parent poses potential harm to the child.
The most common scenario is for one parent to hold sole physical custody while both retain legal custody.
This means that the child lives with the custodial parent, though both have a voice when it comes to decision-making. A regular visitation schedule also usually plays a part in these types of child custody arrangements.
If there’s already friction between you and your ex, going after sole custody may intensify that conflict. Especially if you sue for sole custody and don’t get it. That may lead to bad feelings that manifest down the road.
Save this move for cases when it’s warranted, not just because the two of you don’t get along. This is still your child’s parent, and for the sake of the kids, try to keep things as civil as possible.
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4) Joint Custody
By now you probably already have at least a fair idea of joint custody arrangements as a concept.
It’s when both parents, while not living together, participate in raising their child. Joint custody refers to either legal or physical custody, or both.
One of the most common types of child custody, in practice this breaks down in a number of ways.
For example, even if the father has sole physical custody, the mother may share joint legal custody. This means both parents are responsible for making decisions about their child.
In most cases of joint physical custody, there’s also joint legal custody.
On the other hand, just because the parents share joint legal custody, doesn’t mean they also have joint physical custody. The court often mixes and matches types of child custody to fit the situation.
Joint physical custody works best when both parents live in close proximity to one another.
This makes shuttling the kids back and forth, picking them up from school, getting them to soccer games, and all the rest more practical. In these cases, it’s easier to rotate between homes. Children often wind up spending significant time at each house, with each parent.
When there’s a greater distance between the parents’ homes—say, one lives up in Carlsbad, one lives down in Chula Vista—things get trickier to schedule.
Perhaps the most common scenario in these cases is where the child spends most of the week in one household and splits weekends and holidays between the two. This is the typical “weekend parent” set up.
There are a variety of ways to handle joint custody. One that’s become more and more common recently is called “nesting” or “birdnesting.” This is a co-parenting strategy where the children stay in a single home all the time, but the parents rotate in and out.
Since they don’t bounce around as often, it allows for increased stability for the kids. Not feasible in every case, some people rave about this setup. It is, however, rare and certainly not for everyone.
Joint physical custody is when the court awards both parents significant chunks of time.
Due to physical constraints, this again happens most often when the parents live close to one another. If the distance is too great, one parent will likely wind up with physical custody, while the other must settle for visitation.
Depending on the circumstances, the court often awards joint legal custody. This means that both parents share decision-making powers. That way they must cooperate and work together to determine how to raise the child in question. If one attempts to take over full control of the child’s upbringing, the other can take the matter to court to enforce the order.
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Benefits and Drawbacks of Joint Custody
The biggest plus of joint custody is that it keeps both parents involved in the child’s life in a big way. Staying in continual contact with both mother and father benefits the children, and their relationships continue to grow over time.
Joint custody also puts the responsibility of raising the kids on both parents instead of forcing one to do the bulk of the heavy lifting.
On the negative side, regularly seeing your ex often leads to friction. Even when you divorced on relatively good terms. If things were great, you’d probably still be married. Shuffling the kids back and forth and maintaining a schedule is time-consuming and stressful for parents and children.
Maintaining two homes gets expensive. Oftentimes, one parent may feel he or she is putting in more—emotionally, time-wise, or financially—which also results in conflict.
The are multiple types of child custody. Which applies to your case depends on the specifics of your situation. Knowing this information may impact how you proceed with a custody case.
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