Custody Options, Procedures and Forms

While the laws can vary by state, legal custody refers to the legal authority to make major decisions on behalf of the child. Examples of major decisions include: where the child will go to school, the type of education, the form of religious upbringing, and non-emergency medical decisions. Legal custody options generally include sole legal custody and joint legal custody. The parent who has sole legal custody generally has the final saying in making major decisions on behalf of the child. These include decisions regarding education, religion, and medical. A parent having sole legal custody still has to confer with the other parent, but they have the ultimate decision-making power. Joint legal custody means that both parents have to agree when it relates to making major decisions for the child. If the parents cannot agree, they typically have to go to a mediator. It should be noted that parents can potentially share "joint legal custody" without having "joint physical custody."

Physical custody refers where the children live the majority of the time. This is sometimes referred to as "residential custody." Types of physical custody include sole physical custody and joint physical custody. With sole physical custody, the child physically resides at one location. In most cases, the non-custodial parent is awarded generous visitation rights, including sleepovers. Joint physical custody is often called "shared custody." In this situation, the children spend substantial time with both parents. The division of time spent at each location is approximately equal, although not necessarily fifty-fifty.

Parent-child visitation allows parents who do not have physical custody to see their children on a regular basis. Types of visitation include unsupervised, supervised, and virtual visitation. Unsupervised visitation is the most common type of visitation. Parents with unsupervised visitation are generally able to exercise their visitation how and where they please. Courts order unsupervised visitation the vast majority of the time. In some cases, the courts will order supervised visitation, which means that another responsible adult or supervisor must be present for the duration of the visit. Depending on the circumstances, the courts may allow the non-custodial parent to select an individual to serve as the supervisor--such as a grandparent or other relative. In other cases, the parent and child must meet at specified location so that an appointed social worker or court-appointed designee can supervise the visit. This occurs in cases where the court believes that unsupervised visitation would impair the emotional health and physical development of a child. Virtual visitation typically takes place over the Internet and may include video chatting, instant messaging, and email. This is a new form of visitation becoming more common.