The 4 Primary Types of Child Custody


child holding hands with parents
child holding hands with parents

Child custody should always be handled with thoughtfulness, understanding, and commitment. We’ve all heard the horror stories of lengthy child custody battles that inevitably end up hurting one party more than any other – your children.

Rarely does anyone enter a child custody battle with the intention of it becoming complicated – but, unfortunately, it can turn that way quickly. The odds of a child custody case escalating rapidly is often fueled by a lack of understanding from involved parties – including what type of custody they are actually seeking, or what custody arrangement is best for their family.

While every situation is unique, there are four primary types of child custody. Having a basic understanding of each can help you make more informed decisions.

Physical Custody

Physical custody refers to where your child(ren) will physically reside after a custody arrangement has been made. This can mean that your child may live with one parent a majority of the time with the non-custodial parent visiting, or it may be that they will live an equal amount of time with both parents. If that is the case, you will mostly likely end up with a joint custody agreement, which we’ll tackle momentarily!

Legal Custody

Legal and physical custody are often associated as going hand-in-hand. In reality, they mean two very different things.

Legal custody refers to who has the right make decisions regarding the needs of your child(ren) – including medical, education, legal, religious, or financial decisions. In many cases, one parent can retain primary physical custody of their children with both parents sharing equal legal custody. That means that any decisions regarding children are made jointly. One parent does not have the ability to make decisions at their sole discretion.

Sole Custody

Sole custody occurs when one parent assumes primary responsibility for the child(ren) for both physical care and decision-making. In sole custody cases in Virginia, the sole custodial parent is essentially given permission to make any and all decisions regarding their child(ren) – including medical, education, religious, or others.

Sole Custody being granted is a rarity in Virginia without extenuating circumstances. If you find yourself in a situation where you feel sole custody is necessary for your children, you should enlist the guidance of a legal professional right away.

Joint Custody

One of the most common custody arrangements, joint custody means that both parents agree to share equal responsibility for the emotional, physical, and moral development and wellbeing of their children.

In Virginia, there are two forms of joint custody – legal and physical. As we mentioned before, joint legal custody means that while the children may live predominately with one parent, both parents have an equal responsibility in decision-making for their children. Joint physical custody means that children alternate spending time living with both parents. There is not a specific timeline that determines joint physical custody. In some scenarios, children may alternate weeks with parents (usually in situations where parents live in the same local area.) In others where there is more distance, children may spend several months at a time with one parent and then spend an alternating amount of time with the other.

When it comes to joint physical custody, every situation is completely unique. Depending on factors like location, school schedules, the children’s age, and parent work situations, finding the right custody schedule that works for your family is key.

Regardless of the situation, or the type of custody you are seeking, keeping your children’s best interests top of heart and mind is paramount. Communication is key. In some cases, using mediation to discuss child custody can be extremely helpful for parents struggling to navigate these tricky waters.

Our law firm provides legal counsel regarding family law matters in northern Virginia. This includes child custody and visitation, custody enforcement, and a number of other areas. Contact our team today for legal assistance.

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