What is Child Custody?

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Child custody refers to the legal relationship between a parent or guardian and a child in that person’s care. Child custody determines who a child physically lives with and whether a parent or guardian can make decisions regarding a child’s health, religion, and schooling, among other things.

Two types of Child Custody

Physical Custody

Physical custody means that a parent has the right to have a child live with him or her. Courts will typically award joint physical custody when the child spends significant amounts of time with both parents. Joint physical custody works best if parents live relatively close to each other and are able to co-parent effectively together. There are certain circumstances where a child lives primarily with one parent and the other parent has visitation. In these situations, the parent who the child lives with is referred to as the “custodial” parent and has “sole” physical custody.

Legal Custody

Legal custody of a child means a parent has the right and the obligation to make decisions about a child’s upbringing such as which school the child will attend; what religion he or she will practice (if any); who will be his medical treatment providers and other life decisions. In many states, courts regularly award joint legal custody, which means that decision making is shared by both parents. However, a court may award sole legal custody to only one parent if the parents cannot make decisions together because their relationship has deteriorated and communication is no longer possible.

How does child custody affect support payments?

Child custody arrangements may impact child support payments that one parent must pay to the other. For example, if one parent has sole physical custody of a child, typically the other parent will be responsible for making child support payments. And even if parents enjoy joint physical custody, that does take child support obligations off the table. The higher-earning parent will typically have to provide some sort of child support payment based on his or her earnings.

How do you get help with child support?

If you are in need of child support, you can begin a child support case or try to collect on an existing order by contacting your local child support agency to assist you. Your County’s Department of Social Services webpage is a great starting point.

Government Resources