Legal Custody Definition

Where You Need a Lawyer:

(This may not be the same place you live)

At No Cost! 

 What Are Child Custody Rights?

In general, child custody rights refer to the set of legal rights that a parent is granted upon receiving custody of their child in a divorce or legal separation setting. For example, a parent with legal custody over their child will have the right to make important legal decisions on behalf of their child.

Additionally, a parent with physical custody has the right to live with the child. Generally, the parent’s residence that has primary physical custody of the child is considered to be the child’s primary residence.

It is important to note that a child’s biological parents are automatically granted certain legal rights over their child or children. A parent with child custody rights will typically have the right to:

  • Make educational decisions for their child, such as what type of school they attend, what type of courses the child should take, and other similar decisions;
  • Make religious decisions regarding what religion to raise the child in, if any;
  • Make legal decisions on behalf of their child, such as whether or not to enter into certain legal contracts on behalf of their child;
  • Make medical decisions for their child, including psychological care.

What Is the Legal Definition of Child Custody?

It is important to note that the exact legal definition will differ by state and jurisdiction. However, in general, legal custody is the legal right awarded to the parents of a child in order to make important decisions on their child’s behalf. As such, it is important to consult your local family code in order to get the exact definition of legal custody in your state.

A parent may either be awarded joint or sole custody of their child, depending on their family law case circumstances. Importantly, a parent is granted certain legal rights over their child from the time of birth of their child. When the two biological parents of a child separate or go through a divorce, then custody of their child or children will have to be determined, along with other legal issues related to their child.

In general, courts tend to favor granting joint legal custody to both parents in order to promote both parents being involved in the decision-making process for their child or children. Once again, legal custody allows the parents to make certain decisions on behalf of their minor child or children, such as those outlined above.

What Are the Different Forms of Child Custody?

As mentioned above, child custody may come in many different forms. The following list is a summary of the different types of child custody that are available to parents upon divorce or legal separation. It is important to note that the exact definition of these custody rights may depend on the state in which you live:

  • Legal Custody: Legal custody gives a parent the legal right and obligation to make decisions regarding their child’s upbringing. Examples of decisions a parent may make on behalf of their child include decisions on important matters such as the child’s schooling, healthcare, and religious upbringing. Every state allows for joint legal custody of a child, which refers to both parents having the ability to make important decisions.
    • Legal custody is the most common type of child custody available to parents, and it allows both parents to make decisions about the child’s upbringing.
    • However, in many cases, only one parent will be granted legal custody of the child. That parent is usually the custodial parent.
  • Physical Custody: Physical custody involves the legal right to have a child physically live with one parent. Every state also recognizes joint or shared physical custody, where a child lives with each parent for relatively equal amounts of time.
    • Physical custody allows for each parent to spend a maximum amount of time with their child.
    • One disadvantage of physical custody is that parents must generally live close to each other in order for split physical custody arrangements to work. Parents must also have a workable and peaceful relationship in order to avoid conflicts for their child or children.
  • Sole Custody: In the case of sole custody, only one parent has custody for most of the time. Then, the other parent is permitted certain child visitation rights, in which they are able to visit with their child for an allotted period of time.
    • In general, courts are moving away from sole custody arrangements. Unless the child is in clear danger in one parent’s household or evidence is shown that permitting one parent legal and physical custody of the child is not in the child’s best interest.
  • Joint Custody: When parents agree, or a court orders parents to agree, to share decision-making and child-raising responsibilities, then they will be granted joint custody of their child or children.
    • Once again, joint custody arrangements are preferred by the court and typically considered to be in the child’s best interests.
    • Joint child custody arrangements ensure children have continued contact and involvement with both of their parents and help to alleviate some of the burdens of parenting for each parent.
  • Birds Nest Custody: Birds nest custody refers to a rare form of child custody wherein the child or children remain living in the family home, and the parents take turns moving in and out of the home to care for the child.
    • This form of child custody is typically not granted as it is disruptive to the parents’ schedules, and the parents will not typically be amenable to the situation long-term.

What Is the Child’s Best Interest Standard?

When determining physical and legal custody of a child, family law courts will always make the decision based on the child’s best interest. As such, all decisions regarding the child, including determining custody, will be made according to the child’s best interest standard.

What is considered to be best for the child will always be placed over the wants and needs of the parents involved in the custody case.

Common examples of what is considered when determining child custody include, but may not be limited to:

  • Each parent’s relationship with the child;
  • Each parent’s history of interactions with the child;
  • Whether one parent has been acting as the child’s primary caretaker and how long they have been the primary caretaker;
  • The child’s background, such as their attachment to their home, neighborhood, and school;
  • The mental and physical health of each parent;
  • The mental and physical health of the child;
  • Each parent’s financial state;
  • Each parent’s residence and the state of the residence;
  • Whether the child has any special needs, such as health, mental, or medical needs;
  • The wishes of the parents, if they have both agreed to a particular custody arrangement;
  • The child’s wishes, if the child is old enough and capable of stating a preference.

Do I Need A Lawyer for Help With Legal Custody?

As can be seen, there are numerous factors that are taken into consideration when determining the legal custody of a child or children. As such, if you are going through a divorce with children or if you are going through a legal separation, it is important to consult with an experienced child custody lawyer.

Having LegalMatch match you with an experienced child custody attorney can help you understand your state’s specific laws on child custody and what your legal rights and options are under those laws. Additionally, an experienced attorney will also be able to represent you in court as needed throughout the entire legal process.

Law Library Disclaimer


16 people have successfully posted their cases

Find a Lawyer