Answers to Common Child Custody Questions
Legal and Physical Child Custody
Parents who share legal custody both have the right to make decisions about aspects of their children’s lives, but they do not have to agree on every decision; either parent can make a decision alone. However, it is important for parents to work together and cooperate when making decisions for their children. Otherwise, you run the risk of ending up in court and creating conflict, which makes working together as parents even more difficult. And remember, children always suffer when there is tension between their parents, so it’s best to try to keep your relationship as conflict-free as possible.
Physical custody can be sole, joint or primary. Sole custody means the children live with one parent most of the time and usually visit the other parent. With joint custody, the children live with both parents. Joint physical custody does not mean that children must spend exactly half the time with each parent. Usually children spend a little more time with one parent than the other because it is too hard to split the time exactly in half. When one parent has a child more than half of the time, that parent is sometimes called the primary custodial parent; the other parent having visitation.
Sometimes a judge gives parents joint legal custody, but not joint physical custody. This means that both parents share the responsibility for making important decisions in the children’s lives, but the children live with one parent most of the time. The parent who does not have physical custody usually has visitation with the children, but still shares in decision making.
Sometimes the terms custodial parent and non-custodial parent are used in court or during mediation. The custodial parent is the parent that currently has visitation with the child; the child is currently visiting with that parent. The non-custodial parent is the parent who does not have the child in his or her custody at that particular time. For example, a father that has his children over the weekend is the custodial parent during that weekend regardless of whether the mother has primary custody of the children. Father will be the noncustodial parent when the child returns to mom and is in her custody.
In California, either parent can have custody of the children, or the parents can share custody. The judge makes the final decision about custody and visitation, but usually will approve the arrangement that both parents agree on or is recommended by a child custody counselor/mediator. If the parents cannot agree, the judge will make a decision at a court hearing.