During a divorce or separation, sorting out custody arrangements for the children is one of the most difficult and upsetting parts of the process. Even when parents generally agree on custody arrangements, it can be hard to go from being a full-time parent with a partner to a single parent who only lives with or visits with their children some of the time. And when parents don’t agree on what the custody arrangement should be, it becomes even more difficult. If you’re headed into a custody dispute, it’s important to understand the different types of custody and what kind of arrangement you might be looking at. Take a look at what you need to know about the difference between full and partial custody.
When a parent has full custody, that means that they have both physical and legal custody of their child. That means that their child lives with them and that they have the final say on important decisions concerning their child – decisions like where the child will go to school, what kinds of medical treatment they receive, and what religion they practice as they grow up.
Most of the time, both parents are awarded full custody. This is usually called “joint custody.” The children will live with both parents; it might not be a 50/50 split of their time, but significant time will be spent with both parents. This is the most common type of custody arrangement after a divorce.
When one of the parents has full custody – or sole custody, as it’s sometimes called – the other parent may have a court-ordered visitation schedule or an informal visitation routine that both parents agree upon. On the other hand, they may have no involvement with the child at all. The parent without custody will also have fewer legal rights to their child. They may not be able to enroll their child in school without the other parent, or consent to medical treatments, for example.
Sole custody being awarded to one parent used to be commonplace, but in recent years it’s become increasingly rare. Modern courts understand the importance that a relationship with both parents plays in the life of a child, and generally, want to encourage both parents to build and maintain that relationship even after a divorce. In today’s courts, sole full custody is usually awarded when one parent is abusive, unfit, or incapacitated, or when one parent chooses not to seek any kind of legal custody, parental rights, or involvement in their child’s life. In most other circumstances, some type of shared custody is more common.
Even when a parent wins full custody, this is not always a permanent arrangement. For example, a parent who was incapacitated by an alcohol or substance abuse problem may be able to regain some custody and legal rights to their children if they attend rehab, get clean, and demonstrate their ability to be a fit parent. Parents who seek and win sole custody should be aware that they may eventually have to share custody with their child’s other parent at some point in the future.
Partial custody is often awarded to parents who for whatever reason do not have full or joint custody of their children. Sometimes it’s because the parent had previously lost all custody rights to their children but was able to demonstrate to the court that they had changed and were able to function as a parent to their children again. Children usually don’t live with a parent who has partial custody but may stay with them for short periods of time, like a weekend or a few weeks in the summer. In other cases, the parent with partial custody may simply have some type of visitation. The parent that the child lives with full-time is said to have primary custody.
Parents with partial custody may also not have the same legal rights as the parent with primary custody. In some cases, they may have no legal custody rights. This means that while they may be able to spend time with their children, they have no say over important decisions like medical or educational options. In other cases, they may have some legal custody rights, but not others. For example, they may be able to consent to medical treatments for their child, but not be able to enroll their child in school or make decisions about their religious instructions.
Family court judges consider many factors when deciding how to split custody between parents and whether one parent should have more custody rights than the other. As a general rule, you can expect the judge to place the best interests of the child above anything else. Custody decisions aren’t necessarily about dividing time fairly between two parents, they’re about making sure that the child in question is safe and well cared for.
In order to determine the best interests of the child, a judge may consider each parents financial, housing, and health situations, as well as the relationship of the child with each parent, any past instances of abuse or neglect, and any special health, emotional, mental, or educational needs that the child may have. Family court judges do their best to make sure that a custody arrangement meets all of the physical and developmental needs of the children.
Understanding the different types of custody and what they mean is one important factor in preparing for a custody hearing. A legal resource group like National Family Solutions can help you understand your custody options and prepare documentation and testimony for court.