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Child Custody

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Child custody defines the relationship and duty between a parent and child after the parents separate or divorce. State courts have jurisdiction in deciding with which parent the child will reside based on the child’s best interests. Each state typically considers the following factors in determining custody:

  • Age and sex of the child
  • Emotional ties between the parents, siblings and child
  • Capacity of the parent seeking custody to provide a loving, nurturing environment for the child
  • Resources of the parent seeking custody to provide the child with food, clothing, medical care and other necessities
  • Age, physical and mental health, and character of the parent seeking custody
  • Effect of the continuation or proposed disruption of the child’s existing home
  • Child’s preferences, if the court deems the child mature enough to make such decisions
  • Ability of the parents to agree on visitation rights
  • Abuse or domestic violence witnessed by the child by either parent toward the child, a sibling, a close relative or the other parent

The court may impose a custody arrangement if both parties cannot agree to a schedule.

Types of Custody

  • Physical: A parent may have the child reside with him or her. When a child resides with one parent and has visitation rights with the other, the parent with whom the child primarily resides has sole physical custody. When parents have joint physical custody, both have the right to spend significant amounts of time with the child and have the child reside with them as long as they all reside in the same vicinity.
  • Legal: A parent has the right and responsibility to make decisions about the child’s care and upbringing, including schooling, medical care and religion. If parents share legal custody, both have the right to make these decisions. However, if the parents have divergent views, intervention from the court could be necessary.
  • Joint: The parents share the responsibility of caring for the child. Most states recognize two kinds of joint custody: physical and legal.
  • Sole: Only one parent has legal and/or physical custody of the child. The other parent likely will have visitation rights.

Joint Versus Sole Custody

In joint custody, both parents share the decision-making role in the child’s life. Sole-custody rulings usually are limited to parental situations involving violence or circumstances that make joint decision-making unworkable. Joint custody does not eliminate child-support obligations or significantly change access schedules. Primary conservators designate where the child will reside, though it's usually limited to a defined geographic area or school district. Both parents retain the right to attend school functions, meet with teachers and doctors and be contacted in an emergency.

Last updated: Sept. 26, 2008

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