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Three common questions divorcing parents ask about child custody

When you first found out that you and your spouse will be divorcing, one of your first concerns may have been over child custody. Parents who are beginning the divorce process often have many questions about child custody. Parents often want to better understand what custody is, who determines what custody option is appropriate and how that decision is made. If you are a parent beginning the divorce process, understanding the answers of questions like these can help you be more informed as you face decisions regarding the custody of your own child.

What is the difference between legal and physical custody?

Child custody is divided into two different types of custody. Legal custody allows a parent to make important decisions about the child’s upbringing. This can include medical, educational or religious decisions. Often, joint legal custody is awarded. This means that the parents must work together to make important decisions about the child’s life. If sole legal custody is awarded, only one parent has the right to make this type of decision.

Physical custody, sometimes called residential custody, refers to the responsibility to provide care and supervision for the child. If joint custody is awarded, parents will spend time living with either parent. If sole physical custody is awarded the child will live with one parent most of the time. The other parent will have visitation.

Who makes decisions about child custody?

As parents, you and your spouse probably know best what custody plan would benefit your child. You and your spouse can put this knowledge to use by working together to create a mutually agreeable custody plan. Often, parents who come to an agreement about custody are able to have more control over the custody arrangement than if a judge had decided for them. However, if negotiations or mediation falls through, custody arrangements can be determined by a judge.

How do courts make decisions about child custody?

When determining how to award custody, a judge will look for the option that is in the child's best interests. The judge may consider many aspects of the child’s home life to determine what is in his or her best interests.

Some factors the judge may consider, include:

  • Each parent’s parenting skills
  • Each parent’s mental and physical health
  • Any history of domestic violence
  • If one parent has been the main caregiver
  • The child’s relationship with immediate family members
  • The child’s wishes

If you are a parent beginning the divorce process, it can be beneficial to understand the basics of child custody. With a full understanding of child custody, you will be best equipped to advocate for the custody option that provides the most benefit to your child.

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