Q: What is “custody?”
A: The term “custody” refers to a parent’s legal right or obligation to house and care for their children, and to make decisions concerning their upbringing, schooling, religion, medical care, and other matters.
Q: What types of custody arrangements are available to us?
A: The best custody determination occurs when both parents agree on custody matters without going to court. In these situations, their lawyers or mediator can draw up whatever agreement works for a particular family, and the parents can implement it immediately. This agreement may include where the children will live, how long they will spend with each parent, who will make decisions regarding education and medical care, and even those who will pay for summer camp. As long as you can reach an agreement, you’re free to handle custody in whatever way is right for you.
Q: What is physical custody?
A: Physical custody refers to where the children will live—their primary place of residence. It can also refer to when the children will be with each parent. Additionally, visitation (also called “parenting time”) is a part of physical custody. Therefore, you might have physical custody of the child, but the child visits with the other parent less than 50 percent of the time. The issue becomes, which parent is the child’s primary caretaker? As a general rule, if the children are in your care for at least 50 percent of the year, you are designated the “primary physical custodian.”
The primary physical custodian usually makes the day-to-day decisions about the child’s life, as well as more important decisions such as where the children go to school or camp, what extracurricular activities he or she may participate in, and what doctor to call when the child has an earache.
Q: What is joint custody?
A: Joint custody is not as legally significant a term as you might think, although you hear it often in the news or movies. More important are the details, the fine print of the custody agreement. Most parents would be unconcerned with the label of custody if they could see their children often (perhaps Wednesday through Sunday), rather than have “joint custody” that translates to only one weekend a month with their children. Therefore, the details are most important. Do not get hung up on the words.
Q: What is legal custody?
A: Legal custody is another intangible concept. Simply stated, it means that a person gets the right to make legal decisions about the children’s upbringing, such as medical care, education, and religion.
“Joint legal custody” is emerging as a favored concept in many divorce cases. It means that parents with joint legal custody have the right to make important decisions about school, medical care, religion, and other important issues in their children’s lives and have access to their children’s records.
As you propose an arrangement, think about what issues are important to you. Do you trust your ex-spouse to make the same decisions you would about the child’s religious upbringing? Do you feel strongly about what school your children attend? Perhaps you could agree that if your spouse is willing to pay the tuition, he or she is entitled to decide which private school the children attend if they go to private school. Otherwise, your residence determines the school district.