What does custody mean in law?

Child custody law refers to two types of custody: physical and legal custody. Parents and guardians can share both types of custody, known as joint custody, or a court may grant one primary custody over the other.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Apr 2, 2022

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  • Child custody law refers to both physical and legal custody
  • Custody can also refer to joint, where parents share custody, or primary, where one parent is solely responsible
  • Family courts consider the child’s preference and their current living pattern when determining custody rulings

The legal definition of custody has many different meanings. In criminal law, custody refers to when a suspect or property is arrested or seized by police. However, in family law, the meaning of custody refers to the children of parents who are in the process of divorce or separation. 

Custody of a child is broken down into physical and legal custody. Physical custody applies to the parent who cares for the child on a daily basis. In contrast, legal custody gives a parent the power to decide children’s medical care and education. Parents may choose to have joint custody where they both share in the decision-making process, often with the help of a family lawyer or divorce attorney.

Keep reading to better understand what custody means and how the different types of custody can apply to your case. Take advantage of our free legal resources, and use our guide to get in touch with free attorneys in your area.

What does custody mean?

In general, custody is the protective guardianship of a person. In family law, this guardianship applies to children. Custody of children can go to parents, grandparents, relatives, or foster parents. 

There are two types of custody in family law — physical and legal custody.

State child custody laws will regulate how minor children spend time with their parents, guardians, and foster families. For example, the custodial parent will have primary physical custody and be the adult with whom the children can legally spend the most time. 

However, parents can decide if they want joint (shared) or primary (sole) custody. You may want to contact a family lawyer if you’re going through a divorce or fighting to win custody of a child. There are many avenues parents and relatives can take to get joint or primary custody, and an experienced attorney can help you find the resources you need.

What is physical custody?

Physical custody refers to where the children will primarily reside. Even if there is a joint custodial arrangement, the parent with physical custody will still represent the primary residence for the child. 

As stated earlier, the parent with physical custody is considered the custodial parent. If a child spends more than 60% of the time with them, then the non-custodial parent may be responsible for child support payments. If and how child support is calculated depends on the terms of the divorce and the agreement between the parents, their attorneys, and the court.

What is legal custody?

The parent or guardian with legal custody is responsible for making medical and financial decisions for the child. They will also be held accountable for any criminal actions their child may commit. 

Legal custody can also apply to travel destinations, religious beliefs, and more, but it has nothing to do with physical custody. For example, both parents may share physical custody, but only one parent may have legal custody, and vice versa.

What is joint custody?

Joint custody arrangements are made between guardians who plan to share either physical custody, legal custody, or both. 

When it comes to joint legal custody, parents or guardians must prove to the court they can work together when making decisions for their children. This involves facilitating and supporting a close relationship between the child and the other parent or guardian, as well as treating one another with mutual respect. 

For joint physical custody, courts will still name a custodial parent. Their residence will be used as the child’s permanent address, but the court will still grant visitation rights to the non-custodial guardian. Visitation is determined by the terms of the divorce and/or custody agreements. It typically breaks down into:

  • Weekends and holidays vs. weekdays
  • Alternating years or six-month periods

If the non-custodial parent is deemed unfit by the court, visitation may be limited to supervised sessions. A court will not grant joint custody if there is a history of domestic violence.

What is primary custody?

Custodial parents often have primary physical custody of a child, but they may also have primary legal custody. This means the child spends most of their time with them, and they do not need to confer with the other parent when making financial and medical decisions regarding the child.

For example, suppose a parent is deemed unfit by the court for criminal behavior, a history of violence against the children or other family members, or a history of drug and alcohol abuse. In that case, the courts will not hesitate to grant another guardian primary custody, or sole custody.

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Should I hire a family lawyer if I want custody?

If you want primary physical or legal custody of a child, hiring a family law attorney is in your best interest. There are key things the court will look for when granting custody, and an attorney can help you prepare.

If you want to win custody of a child, the court will consider your:

  • Financial stability and the ability to provide
  • Permanent family home or residence
  • Willingness to work with other guardians
  • Mental and physical health
  • Emotional bond with your child

Courts will also consider the preference of the child and their current living pattern when determining custody. Thus, it is always likely to rule in the child’s best interest when their mental and emotional well-being is at risk. 

For example, if your child has a stable home and educational opportunities with their current guardian, the court is unlikely to change their living situation. However, when you hire a family lawyer, they can help you navigate your choices and prepare you for your day in court. 

You will also want to hire an attorney when you want to make any changes to an existing custody plan, including if you plan to move, remarry, or adopt other children.

What You Need to Know About Custody Law

What does custody mean? Custody refers to protective guardianship, usually of minor children during divorce or foster court proceedings. Child custody law refers to two types of custody: physical and legal. Parents and guardians can share both types of custody, known as joint custody, or a court may grant one primary custody over the other. 

When it comes to granting custody of a child, courts look for specific factors that impact the emotional well-being of children, including the stability of the home and the mental and physical health of the guardians. You may want to hire a family law attorney if you need to make changes to a custody plan or want to regain custody of your children.

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