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Types of Child Custody Agreements

There are several types of child custody agreements. Each is guided by the needs and desires of both the parents and their children.

Types of Child Custody Agreements

While the nuances of specific agreements are variable, there are four main types of child custody agreements:

  • Joint custody, which is also called joint child custody, and can be broken down into joint legal custody and joint physical custody
  • Sole or full custody
  • Non-parental or third-party custody
  • Split custody

Joint Custody

Joint custody has become more commonplace in the last two decades and is now the typical child custody agreement in many states.

The exactly definition of joint custody varies, but it generally means that both parents share the legal responsibilities, and the physical care and custody of their child. In practice, a joint custody agreement will reflect the realities of your post-divorce situation. It will take into account whether you and your ex-spouse can cooperate in raising your child, your physical proximity to one another, and the needs and desires of your child.

Sole or Full Custody

Once the norm, sole custody is increasingly rare today. It is usually used in situations in which one parent is unfit or incapable of having any form of responsibility over a child. In a sole custody arrangement, the "custodial" parent has exclusive physical and legal custody rights concerning the child. The child's "non-custodial" parent is usually entitled to visitation. Those visits may be supervised, especially in situations involving domestic violence or child abuse. A custodial parent has the ultimate authority in making child-rearing decisions, including matters such as health care, education, religious upbringing and surname changes.

Non-Parental or Third-Party Custody

A court might award custody to a third party or non-parent in extreme cases. For example, a third party may be granted custody if a parent dies and the surviving parent is unfit, or if a child has been living with a third party for a long period of time. Third parties who might seek custody of a child included grandparents, aunts and uncles, step-parents or partners in same-sex relationships.

Most states follow what is called the parent preference rule, which ensures that a parent will be awarded custody of his or her child unless he or she is deemed an unfit parent. If a non-parental party challenges a parent's custody, he or she must prove to the court that granting parental custody is not in the child's best interests.

Split Custody

Often confused with joint custody, split custody actually refers to an uncommon arrangement where the custody of multiple children is split between parents. It is rare because the courts resist separating siblings, feeling that separation can compound the already damaging effects of divorce. In making a split custody award, a court will typically consider factors like the preferences of both the children and the parents, age disparities between the siblings, special needs, disciplinary issues and other factors.

Your attorney can help you determine what type of child custody agreement is in your best interests and the interests of your child, and can help you navigate the specific custody laws and statutes of your jurisdiction.