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Understanding the different types of child custody

If you are a parent who is going through a divorce, the topic of child custody is likely to arise. It is a good idea to be prepared for this conversation by having a full understanding of the different types of child custody and a general idea of what type you would like to advocate for.

Types of custody

When examining your custody options, it is good to know the difference between physical and legal custody, as well as sole verses joint custody. These terms are important because they are used to parse out parenting responsibilities.

Physical custody allows the child to live with the parent. Legal custody allows the parent to make decisions about the child’s life in areas like education, religion and health care. Both physical and legal custody can be sole or joint, meaning one or both parents could have that type of custody.

Typically, if one parent has sole physical custody, the other parent will share legal custody of the child and have visitation rights. If the parents share physical custody, they will almost always share legal custody as well.

Joint physical and legal custody is a popular option because the child benefits from having a relationship with both parents. However, it can be difficult to split a child’s time equally between the two parents, especially if the parents do not both live close enough to each other for the child to attend the same school when at either parent’s house. Because each situation is unique, the schedule for joint custody arrangements can vary significantly from family to family and does not always result and a completely equal split.


Though it may seem like an obvious consideration, as you decide what custody option to advocate for, be sure to think about what is in your child's best interest. Ideally, the custody option you choose should provide as few disruptions as possible to your child’s life and allow time for the child to feel secure wherever he or she lives. The custody arrangement should also accommodate your child’s needs based on age and activities.

If you and your spouse cannot agree on a custody arrangement, consider trying to resolve the dispute through mediation. Mediation involves the two disagreeing parties meeting with a neutral mediator who will try to facilitate the two parties coming to a resolution. This process can be a shorter and more cost-effective approach than litigation.

Finding the right child custody arrangement can be a tall order, and sometimes disputes are unavoidable. However, with a full understanding of your options, you will be prepared to advocate for the plan that is in the best interest of your child.

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