The legal term child custody refers to the legal and practical relationship between a child and a parent or guardian, and is generally determined in the event of a divorce or legal separation. State laws regarding child custody and how it is determined vary by jurisdiction, although the main standard for child custody decisions is the child’s best interests standard

The needs of the child, and what would be in the child’s best interests, are placed above the parent’s preferences. Additionally, the courts will only make child custody decisions if those decisions best benefit the child.

Though there are different types of child custody arrangements, there are two major types that the court will generally consider: full custody, and joint custody. Simply put, full custody refers to one parent being designated the primary custodial parent

As such, that parent has a majority of the custody time as well as legal rights regarding the child. Joint custody refers to an arrangement in which both parents split physical custody of the child, with one parent possibly retaining legal custody.

What is Full Custody?

To expand upon what was already discussed, full custody refers to a type of child custody arrangement in which only one parent assumes all of the responsibilities related to caring for and raising their child. Full custody may be granted to the primary custodial parent when the following situations occur:

  • One parent has become ill, disabled, or otherwise incapacitated;
  • The court has determined that the other parent is considered unfit to raise a child;
  • The other parent has been incarcerated or has a negative criminal record; and/or
  • There is a history of abuse or neglect by the other parent.

When a parent is awarded full custody, they are the only parent entrusted with both legal and physical custody. Legal custody gives the custodial parent the right and obligation to make decisions regarding the child’s upbringing. 

This could include decisions regarding the child’s education, religious teaching, discipline, and medical care. Physical custody refers to the physical placement of the child, such as where the child will live, or spend most of their time. 

Full custody does not necessarily mean that the other parent has no visitation rights at all. In some full custody cases, the non custodial parent could have some short periods of visitation with the child. 

Full custody and sole custody are often used interchangeably, although there are some differences. Sole custody generally means that the non custodial parent was not awarded any visitation or custody rights.

What is Joint Custody?

As previously mentioned, joint custody occurs when both parents split physical custody of the child, while one parent retains legal custody. The separated or divorced parents share parental duties and time with their child. 

Joint legal custody exists when both parents must agree on all major decisions regarding the child (medical care, education, etc). Joint physical custody refers to the amount of time each parent spends with the child.

Courts will typically favor a joint custody arrangement because it is generally in the child’s best interests for both parents to remain involved in all aspects of their child’s life. However, some common limitations on joint custody include:

  • The parents live far away from each other, which makes it difficult to evenly split physical custody;
  • A joint situation would disrupt the child;
  • A joint situation would conflict with the child’s school schedule;
  • The child prefers one parent over the other and is old enough to have such a preference be considered by the court;
  • The age and maturity of the child; and/or
  • Reasonable time with each parent is not otherwise attainable.

Joint custody and shared custody are often compared to each other. Under shared custody, parents may alternate weeks spent with the child. A joint custody arrangement tends to involve specific days and time frames spent with the child, and must generally be meticulous as the parents will likely be spending an unequal amount of time with their child. 

Share custody implies that the amount of custody between each parent is as equal as possible, while joint custody means that the parents have both been given some (albeit unequally divided) custody.

Joint custody is not automatically granted, and must be requested. If circumstances change, such as one parent moves or remarries, the agreement may be modified by the court. Joint custody is most commonly awarded when both parents are able to assume some degree of child raising responsibility, and are able to cooperate with each other while maintaining communication as directed by the court.

Do I Need an Attorney to Assist With Custody?

All decisions regarding a child must be made with that child’s best interests in mind. No matter what type of custody arrangement, they are commonly subject to the decisions and orders of the family court judge. You should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable child custody attorney if you need legal assistance regarding child custody. 

An experienced child custody attorney can inform you of your rights as well as your specific state’s laws, and represent you in court as needed.