When a spouse up and leaves, it can be the most traumatizing moment of a person’s life, and not just the spouse being served with the divorce papers, either. The kids suffer too. Since a divorce can upend the lives of more than just the adults, it’s important to have a parenting agreement as relates to child custody in place that serves to protect the kids and their well-being.

For most parents, and especially a parent that’s been slapped in the face with a divorce that they never saw coming, they don’t even know where to begin when it comes to child custody or setting up a child custody arrangement. They may have heard this term “child custody” countless times before, but faced with it on such an intimate level now, it may sound particularly cold, emotionless and harsh. No parent probably ever expects they’d have to use the term in regard to their own kids. As harsh as it may sound, the reality is it must be dealt with—and the sooner the better.

When You’ve Been Blindsided by a Divorce - Understanding Child Custody

Different Types of Custody

For starters, it must be understood that there are multiple types of child custody. The term “child custody” in and of itself is a very general term, but there are specific aspects of it that need to be understood. Having even a passing knowledge will help parents get a sense of what they’re in store for regarding the legalities of who possesses the custodial rights to take care of a child after a divorce. Of course, child custody is involved for reasons other than divorce, such as separation or parental death, but for purposes of this blog post, the focus is on its role in a divorce. Moreover, while there are different types of child custody, the core types will be addressed only.

Legal Custody

The parent who the court awards legal custody of a child to possesses the right and obligation to make a lot of significant decisions in the child’s behalf. As the one with sole legal custody, this parent is the one who decides matters such as which religion the child will follow, they decide on which schools the child will attend and they make decisions regarding the best health care for the child. It’s important to note that it is both a right and an obligation, because if the obligation part isn’t dutifully fulfilled, then the other parent can seek the court’s intervention to reconsider the custodial decision. While generally one parent will receive legal custody, it’s also typical for both parents to share legal custody; so although the singular “parent” is herein used, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of both parents having joint legal custody and should be read as such.


Physical Custody

The parent who receives physical custody must provide a suitable home for the child, which is why they’re also called the “residential parent.” They will provide the main place of residence for the child. The court typically gives this type of custody to only one of the parents and thus, in that case, it’s logically referred to as sole physical custody versus joint physical custody, in which both parents receive physical custody. Only one parent commonly receives physical custody, because if the parents live quite a distance apart from each other, then the court doesn’t want the child having to go through the stress of traveling back and forth.

Understanding Child Custody

Physical custody also encompasses how much time each parent gets to spend with the child. Exact days, hours and lengths of time are worked out and approved by the court.

Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody

The court can give a parent sole legal custody or sole physical custody or both. Sole custody—keep in mind, this is in the general sense, and not just specifically either legal or physical—means that parent alone can assume both physical and legal custody of the child. A joint custody arrangement could be created that would allow for both parents to share both legal and physical custody.

Final Comment

It would be great if both parents could come to a mutual agreement regarding child custody, but unfortunately that’s usually not the case. Each parent will generally insist they can provide better for the child and present their reasons why. For these reasons, each parent should hire a lawyer who specializes in cases like these to help them understand how to best represent themselves before the judge and receive the custody they are seeking and a favorable parenting plan.


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