Making Sense Of The Custody Maze

If you and your spouse are getting divorced and have to hammer out a custody agreement for your child, you're going to encounter a lot of terms that look like they're referring to the same thing, but there are subtle differences between them. A good lawyer can help you make sense of all the terms, but it helps to have at least a brief understanding as you go into court.

Joint, Shared, Sole, Full

When courts look at which parent (or if both parents) should have some form of custody of the child, they decide if the custody should be joint, shared, or sole. You might hear the court talk about full custody; this is another name for sole custody.

Sole custody is when only one parent has the legal right to keep the child with him or her and/or the legal right to make decisions about the child's life. The other parent might have visitation rights, but the custody agreement will state specifically when those take place.

Joint and shared custody are similar but not the same. Joint custody means both parents have the right to make decisions about the child's life and/or have the child living with either of them. Shared custody implies the split is relatively even, whereas joint custody could be more lopsided in its division. If you want to look at it this way, shared custody is joint custody, but joint custody is not necessarily shared custody.

Physical vs. Legal

Physical and legal custody are not the same, but you can have both, one, or neither. Physical means that you have physical custody (as in possession) of the child for a substantial amount of time. In a situation where the child lives with each parent half the time, for example, a judge might award joint physical custody, so the child can legally (according to the custody agreement) live with either parent.

Legal custody involves the decision-making process regarding the child's life regardless of where the child is living. You can have joint legal custody but no physical custody, for example.  


Sometimes one parent will have visitation rights only if the visit is supervised. This is often done when there may be a risk to the child. For example, a parent accused of abuse who was never convicted may be awarded visitation rights if the visits are supervised; the same can happen if the parent is considered a kidnapping risk. Each case varies, so there's no dividing line that states X number of problems requires supervision; it's usually up to the judge presiding over the custody case.

If you want to try to get a specific type of custody, or even if the divorce and custody decisions are amicable, you should get the help of an experienced custody lawyer. An attorney like those at Granowitz, White & Weber Attorneys at Law can ensure the agreements are above board and are enforced and can help you maneuver through the custody battle.