One of the first decisions you will make in regards to your children will be custody. Custody isn’t about physical access to the children. Custody mainly pertains to who makes the legal decisions about the children’s life.
Custody is not only reserved for the parents of children. The parents or the courts can grant custody to any person making them responsible for the legal decisions affecting the children. If the court finds that neither parent is able to make the proper decisions affecting the child it will assign a guardian ad litem to be responsible for the decisions however it is usually temporary.
Once custody is decided through agreement or court appointment, the parents are defined as custodial and non-custodial parents. Usually the custodial parent has both legal decision making rights and physical custody but that is not always the case. It is important to remember to seek not only custody but physical access to the children as well.
Custody is not widely understood even in this day of rising divorce rates. Schools, government offices, doctors offices and such don’t always recognize the rights of the non-custodial parent to make legal decisions. During a dispute the “office” will default to the custodial parents desires in most cases. It is good to have a copy of your custody agreement on file with these “offices” so they can understand your custody agreement and recognize the rights afforded to you as the non-custodial parent.
Below are the main two types of custody. As with anything having to do with your children it is not set in stone. Custody can be changed throughout the children’s lives. Stability and consistency are important and if changing custody is in the best interest of the children the court can and will change the custody situation to meet the children’s needs. The parents can also agree to change custody temporarily or permanently to meet their own individual situations.
Type of custody
There are two types of custody: joint and sole. Joint custody is now called shared parental responsibility in most courts in the United States. Joint custody is usually what is assigned unless there are circumstance that would make it detrimental for the children.
Joint Custody (Shared parental responsibility):
In cases of joint custody both parents have equal say over the decisions that affect the children’s life and well-being. It is generally accepted that both parents can agree or come to an agreement over these decisions. Today a lot of parents set out the major decisions that will affect their children in their parenting agreement right from the start. All decisions though can’t be decided ahead time even with the most thorough agreement.
It was once understood that every decision, even down to what activities the child could participate in, had to be agreed upon by both parents. Now the courts and society are focusing more on joint parenting. With this concept the major decisions are agreed upon but day to day decisions are up to the parent who has access with the child at the time. This allows both parents to actually parent the children equally.
When parents can’t agree on major decisions affecting the children the alternative is to go to mediation or sometimes back to court. Even minor decisions can be resolved through mediation. In extreme cases or where the conflict is affecting the child directly the courts can change joint custody to sole custody.
Sole custody is just what it sounds like. One parent is designated as the legal decision maker for the children. This is usually ordered when the parents are just unable to agree on anything. In cases where only one parent is present or if there has been abuse, violence, drug/alcohol abuse, mental illness or poor judgment overall the courts will award sole custody.
Most people think sole custody also means the other parent won’t be able to visit or access the children. That is not so. Custody is about legal decision making authority and doesn’t have anything to do with access/visitation with the child.
Whether you have joint custody or sole custody you are responsible for the decision affecting your children’s lives. It is usually best for children to have both parents involved and parenting the children. Parents should strive for joint custody and learn to effectively communicate and make decisions in their children’s best interest. I realize this cannot always happen and in cases where sole custody is necessary then definitely do what is best for your children. I always advocate for parents to make these decisions and not leave it up to a judge so now that you have an understanding what custody is, take that first step and make the first decision regarding your children.