What are the 3 Types of Child Custody?

What are the 3 Types of Child Custody?

There are primarily two categories of child custody:

  1. Physical custody
  2. Legal custody

On the next level, physical as well as legal custody can be awarded on the following basis:

  • Sole
  • Joint/Shared (including 50/50 custody)
  • Split
  • Primary

The courts always award custody based on the best interests of the child and here is a primer that will help you understand how the different combinations of child custody work:

Two Main Types of Child Custody

Physical Custody

The parent who is awarded physical custody of the child gets to keep the child with him/her. In other words, the child lives with that parent in his/her house.

Legal Custody

When a parent is awarded legal custody, it means that the parent has the right to make big decisions connected with the needs, comforts, and general upbringing of the child. For example, the parent can decide on education, healthcare, and religion.

Subcategories of Physical and Legal Custody

Sole Custody

When a parent gets sole physical and legal custody, it means that the parent gets exclusive rights over the child. The child lives with only one parent and that parent can make all the decisions concerning the child, be it his/her education, activities, religion, healthcare, etc., without consulting the other parent.

Though awarding sole legal and physical custody is rare, the courts do award it when one parent is found to be unfit to care for the child. For example, if the parent is a drug or alcohol addict, mentally ill or incapacitated, or a child abuser, the courts may find him/her unfit. The unfit parent may be awarded visitation rights so long the courts find that the visitation is in the best interests of the child.

When the courts award sole physical custody to a parent, it means that the child has to live with and be supervised by that parent only. The other parent may be awarded visitation rights and/or some legal custodial rights depending on the best interests of the child.

When a parent is awarded sole legal custody, it means that he/she is vested with the right and responsibility to make important decisions that will help in the child’s upbringing and his/her future. The parent can decide on the child’s education, healthcare, insurance, moral and religious development, and about every important facet that impacts the child’s future without consulting the other parent.

Joint/Shared Custody Including 50/50 Custody

The words “joint” and “shared” are used interchangeably while referring to custodial arrangements.

Joint physical and legal custody refers to a custodial arrangement in which both parents cooperate and make decisions about the child’s upbringing and future as the child splits his/her time living in both parents’ homes according to the court-ordered parenting plan.

In 50/50 joint physical custody, the child spends equal time living with both parents. Each parent is responsible for the care of the child when the child is living under his/her roof. A joint physical is awarded when the courts find that both parents are fit to take care of the child and will cooperate in the best interests of the child, the parents live close by (so that the child does not have to travel too much), and both parents have adequate finances to provide for the child’s basic needs, which include providing the child with a clean and hygienic home, adequate space, and nutritious food.

In joint legal custody, both parents get to decide about the child’s upbringing and other important issues concerning the child. It is awarded when the courts find both parents intellectually capable of making important decisions for the child. Both parents must also be available for the child when it is time to make a decision. In some cases, the mother may get to decide about some aspects (for example, school) while the father gets to decide about other aspects (for example, religion).

Also, when one parent gets a major share of the custody, then he/she is said to have primary custody. 

Split Custody

Courts usually award split custody to parents with more than one child. In this arrangement, children are split between their parents. Note that split custodial arrangements are uncommon because the courts believe that children should receive the love, attention, and care of both parents unless it is not in the children’s best interests. Here are some examples of why the courts may award split custody:

  • When a child is well behaved when he/she is with one parent and prefers living only with that parent, then the courts may award the custody of this child to the preferred parent, and split the custody of the other child or children between both parents.
  • If the children fight all the time or have a hard time getting along, then the courts may find it better to appoint a custody evaluation and order split custody if the evaluator’s report confirms the courts’ hypothesis.
  • When a child has special needs, then the parent who is better equipped to provide proper care may be preferred by the courts for split custody of the child.

Primary Custody

When a child spends a majority of his/her time (i.e., living physically) with one parent, that parent is regarded as the one having primary physical custody. The parent with the primary custody is responsible for the child’s upbringing. He/she needs to ensure that the other parent’s visitation rights are not violated. He/she also should communicate about important child-related matters with the other parent, make certain that child support payments are received as agreed, inform the courts and the other parent before traveling with the child, consult the other parent about the child’s healthcare or other expenses, and in general, ensure that he/she always acts in the best interests of the child.

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About the Author: Marco Brown
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Marco C. Brown was named Utah’s Outstanding Family Law Lawyer of the Year in 2015. He graduated with distinction from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 2007 and is currently the managing partner of Brown Family Law, LLC.
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