The legal term “child custody” refers to the legal and practical relationship between a child and their divorced parent. It is one of the most important decisions that a court often has to make, and the laws governing child custody are complex and vary by state. There are different types of custody, and custody rights typically grant the custodial parent the right to make important decisions on behalf of their child.

When determining child custody rights, the court will place the child’s best interests above either parent’s personal preference. The main standard for child custody cases is the child’s best interest standard, which dictates that the courts will only make decisions related to child custody if those decisions benefit the child. In some specific cases, a judge may override what is in the child’s best interest because of an extreme change within the family. 

An example of this would be the child’s primary caregiver suddenly becoming disabled or otherwise unable to care for the child to the fullest extent. Although it would generally be in the child’s best interest to remain with their primary caregiver, the judge may rule that it would actually be in the child’s best interest to grant custody rights to the most capable parent.

A custodial parent is the person who has assumed the main responsibilities associated with caring for their child. The term custodial parent refers to the parent with custody in a sole custody arrangement, as opposed to the non custodial parent. In different contexts, the term custodial parent could have other meanings. 

An example of this would be in a split or shared custody situation. The parents may alternate custody regularly, such as when one parent visits the child on weekends. The parent whom the child is with may be referred to as the custodial parent, but in general, the term refers to the parent with more responsibility for the child in comparison.

Do Different Types of Custody Determine a Custodial Parent’s Rights?

Understanding the different types of child custody is important in fully understanding the rights and responsibilities of a custodial parent. The first difference is between joint custody and shared custody. Joint legal custody refers to both parents having an equal say in the responsibilities and decisions regarding the child’s upbringing. 

Additionally, in joint custody arrangements both parents are highly involved in their child’s life. Shared custody refers to a specific type of joint custody in which the child is allowed to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents, and each parent has physical custody of the child fifty percent of the time.

The second distinction to be aware of is between legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to the parent who is granted the right and responsibility to make important decisions on behalf of the child. 

These decisions could include those involving education, religion, and medical decisions. Physical custody refers to which parent is physically with the child at that moment. A custody arrangement may have one parent as the legal custodial parent, with physical custody transferring when the child is with the non custodial parent.

Other types of custody arrangements include:

  • Sole Custody: Only one custodial parent has custody for the majority of time, with the other parent being permitted child visitation rights. These arrangements are generally the least disruptive to the child’s life, although it could result in a limited connection with the non custodial parent;
  • Joint Custody: As previously mentioned, joint custody refers to both parents sharing the decision making and child raising rights and responsibilities; and
  • Bird’s Nest Custody: This child custody arrangement has the children remain living in the family home, while the parents take turns moving in and out. Although this can be disruptive for the parents, it is generally not as disruptive for the child.

What Rights Does a Custodial Parent Have?

Custodial rights are generally detailed in a child custody order, which is signed by a judge and is legally binding for both parents. As previously mentioned, custody rights can be either legal or physical.

To expand upon legal custody, legal custody rights allow the custodial parent to make decisions concerning, but not limited to the following:

  • Important aspects of the child’s health, safety, and welfare;
  • Schooling;
  • Medical care; and
  • Religious upbringing.

Courts do award joint legal custody under specific circumstances. If the parents can show to the court a willingness to work with each other, the court may award joint legal custody which would grant both parents the right to make decisions about how the child is to be raised.

Physical custody rights, as previously discussed, are the rights allowing a parent to be physically present with the child where the child lives. The parent who spends the majority of the time with the child is said to have primary physical custody. Additionally, the parent who has primary physical custody is likely to have legal custody as well, due to the fact that the parent who lives with the child is better educated in making daily and emergency decisions concerning the child’s safety and welfare.

Do I Need an Attorney to Help With Custody?

You should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable child custody attorney near you if you have any issues regarding child custody. The laws governing child custody vary by state, and a local family law attorney will be knowledgeable about your state’s specific laws. 

Additionally, an experienced child custody attorney can help you file any necessary custody or modification paperwork. Finally, an attorney can represent you in court as needed.