Divorce or legal separation can be a major event that involves several related legal issues. These can include issues regarding child or spousal support, as well as child custody and visitation. In a divorce context, child custody is often a main legal issue that must be resolved. There can be different types of child custody, depending on the needs of the child and the parents. 

What are the Different Types of Child Custody?

The following are different types of custody available to parents upon divorce or separation. The exact definition of these may depend on the state in which you live and the particular situation the child is in: 

  • Legal Custody
  • Physical Custody
  • Sole Custody
  • Joint Custody
  • Bird’s Nest Custody

Each of these types of child custody are discussed in more detail below. 

  • Legal Custody:
    • How it works – This type of custody gives a parent the legal right and obligation to make decisions about the child’s upbringing. These can include decisions on important matters such as a child’s schooling, healthcare, and religious upbringing. Many states allow joint legal custody of a child (both parents having the ability to make important decisions).
    • Advantages – This is the most common type of custody available. It allows both parents to make decisions about child upbringing, though in many cases only one parent has legal custody (usually the “custodial parent”).
    • Disadvantages – Conflicts can and often do arise between the upbringing approaches of the parents. This can lead to a confusing environment for a child. If one parent attempts to keep their child away from another parent who has legal custody, the second parent can have a judge order the first parent into court. This can be quite expensive to handle.
  • Physical Custody:
    • How it works – This type of custody involves the right to have a child physically live with you.  Some states recognize joint or shared physical custody where a child lives with each parent for relatively equal amounts of time.
    • Advantages – Physical custody allows each parent to spend a maximum amount of time with their child, depending of course on various factors. 
    • Disadvantages – Parents must generally live close to one another for shared physical custody arrangements to work. Also, parents must have a workable and peaceful relationship to avoid conflict for the children.
  • Sole Custody:
    • How it works – With sole custody, only one “custodial” parent has custody for most of the time. The other parent is typically permitted only child visitation rights. Modernly, courts are moving away from this arrangement unless the child is in clear danger in one parent’s household. Some courts grant generous visitation rights to the noncustodial parent.
    • Advantages – Sole custody arrangements are usually the least disruptive of child’s life and can provide some consistency.
    • Disadvantages – It can result in limited connection of one of the parents to their children. This can sometimes lead to heightened animosity between parents.
  • Joint Custody:
    • How it works – This type of custody is when parents agree or a court orders them to agree to share decision-making and child-raising responsibilities. Typically, the parents will synchronize their schedules to make the arrangement work, or a court will order them to do so. Joint custody may refer to joint legal custody, joint physical custody, or some mix of both.
    • Advantages – This type  of child custody often assures children of continuing contact and involvement with both parents, and alleviates some of the burdens of parenting for each parent.
    • Disadvantages – Children must often be shuttled around, and any instance of parental non-cooperation can have seriously devastating effects on children. Also, maintaining two homes for the children can be expensive.
  • Birds Nest Custody:
    • How it works – Children remain living in the family home and the parents take turns moving in and out.
    • Advantages – Bird’s nest custody is generally not as disruptive for the children. Decision-making can still be a problem, however.
    • Disadvantages – This can be expensive and often disruptive for parents. It also might not really work unless parents have other places to live in off days.

Can I Change to a Different Type of Child Custody?

Child custody needs can often be subject to change as the situation of the children and parents can change over time. This is natural and understandable for the courts, who are generally willing to make changes to a custody agreement when needed. 

Modification of a child custody order can be achieved by making an appropriate request with the court. The court will review the various changes occuring in the parents’ and children’s lives, and will make the appropriate adjustments to the custody arrangement.  

It is important to note that child custody changes should follow the legal procedures of the court. Don’t attempt to change the type of custody on your own outside of the court process. This can lead to even more legal issues, conflicts, and violations, which can all lead to the violating parent to face punishment and the chance to lose custody or visitation. Make sure all custody changes are approved by a judge before moving forward with implementing the changes. 

Should I Contact a Lawyer If I Have Issues with Child Custody?

Courts are often involved in determining the right custody arrangements for your child. If you have concerns about who will make decisions for you child, you should contact a family attorney to help persuade the court what the right arrangement is. A child custody attorney can provide you with legal advice and can represent you during court meetings.