Child custody is the right and duty to care for a child on a day-to-day basis and to make major decisions about the child.

In sole custody arrangements, one parent takes care of the child most of the time and makes major decisions about the child. That parent usually is called the custodial parent and the other parent is referred to as the noncustodial parent. The noncustodial parent almost always has a right of visitation—a right to be with the child, including for overnight visits and vacation periods.

In joint custody arrangements, both parents share in making major decisions, and both parents also might spend substantial amounts of time with the child. Joint legal custody refers to both parents sharing in major decisions affecting the child. The most common issues are school, health care, and religious training (although both parents have a right to expose the child to their respective religious beliefs). Other issues on which the parents may make joint decisions include: extra-curricular activities, summer camp, age for dating or driving, and methods of discipline. Many joint custody orders specify that parents should consult a mediator when they cannot agree on an issue.

Joint physical custody refers to the time the child spends with each parent. The amount of time is flexible. The length of time could be relatively moderate, such as every other weekend with one parent; or the amount of time could be equally divided between the parents. Parents who opt for equal time-sharing have come up with many alternatives such as: alternate two-day periods; equal division of the week; alternate weeks; alternate months; and alternate six month periods.

As with financial issues in a divorce, most divorcing parents have reached an agreement on custody before they go to court. Fewer than 5% of parents have custody of their child decided by a judge. When parents cannot agree on custody of their child, the court decides custody according to “the best interest of the child.” Determining the best interest of the child involves consideration of many factors

SOURCE: American Bar Association