When parents separate or divorce, their children often get stuck in an emotional custody battle. Custody disputes can be harmful to the children and may even damage the children's relationships with their parents. If parents are able to reach their own custody agreement, much of that emotional turmoil can be avoided. If not, a court will do its best determine an arrangement that is in the children's best interests. The parents or the court have several options when setting up a custody arrangement.
Legal vs. Physical Custody
To decide which custody arrangement is best, parents must first understand the two aspects to custody: legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody is the right to make decisions regarding the day-to-day care of the child. When raising the child, the parent(s) with legal custody have the right to decide where the child should attend school, what medical treatments are used, if necessary, and what religion the child will practice.
Physical custody defines where the child will live. When parents share physical custody it is important that they live close to each other to avoid putting stress on themselves and the children. However, if one parent has exclusive physical custody, the other parent will have visitation with the child instead.
A gender bias during custody disputes was common even in the 1980s. Only two decades ago, mothers often received sole custody of any children. Sole custody is considered the exclusive right to both legal and physical custody, which means the child lives with that one parent and that parent is the only authority on any decisions that come with raising the child. In the 21st century, sole custody is increasingly uncommon. Fathers now have a much larger role in their children's lives. Even when a child lives primarily with one parent, both parents often get legal custody so they share in the decision-making process. Sole custody is now used only where one parent is unfit because of drug and alcohol abuse or child abuse.
Most courts now prefer joint custody arrangements to ensure that the child has continuous contact with both parents. Joint custody can mean that parents share both physical and legal custody, just physical custody or just legal custody. A court determines the most suitable joint custody arrangement based on the distance between each parent's residence, the child's preference and whether the parents can cooperate.
Split custody is rare and only used when parents have more than one child. Split custody means that each parent gains custody of at least one of the children. Such an arrangement is unlikely because courts do not like to separate siblings. Split custody is primarily used when one child would benefit from being raised by the mother, but another child would do better in the father's care.
Third Party Custody
Third party custody is the most unlikely arrangement. Parents are always preferred custodians unless a court determines one or both of them are unfit. When one parent is deceased and the other is unfit, or when both parents are unfit, especially when the child is already living with a third party, a court can award third party custody to other available and willing family members or guardians.