What is Parental Custody?

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  • Written By: G. Wiesen
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 24 February 2020
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Parental custody, sometimes referred to as legal custody, is a term used in deciding or establishing who has the responsibility for making important decisions governing the health and well-being of a child under the legal age of adulthood. In many cases, parental custody may be a non-issue and is typically assumed by a married couple who are legal parents of a child. Some situations, however, do call parental custody into question, typically when parents divorce or otherwise annul their marriage. In divorce cases, custody is often decided by the court and may be a hotly contested issue during divorce proceedings.

The term “custody” is primarily used in America, and in other regions it may be replaced with terms such as “responsibility” in the European Union and “residence” in Scotland. Regardless of the precise term being used, parental custody is generally seen as falling to the parent or legal guardian with whom the child lives the majority of the time, and who is allowed to make important decisions regarding the upbringing of the child. In the United States (US), the exact requirements and definitions for parental custody often fall to the individual states to establish.


States in the US often decide physical custody by establishing the location where a child lives. Parental custody can often be established through a divorce, and both parties might come to a mutually beneficial agreement or may fiercely contest the other person gaining custody of the child. When a divorce establishes custody of a child, there are a number of different types of custody, including primary custody, shared or joint custody, and sole custody.

Primary custody typically is based upon the physical custody of a child, and regards the location at which the child most often lives. Sole parental custody of a child occurs when one parent or legal guardian has exclusive custody over a child and may legally make all of the important daily decisions affecting the health and well-being of the child, including geographical location, schools, and medical issues. Contrarily, joint custody or shared custody of a child is a situation in which both parents separately have parental custody of the child, but each take turns being the custodian of the child. This is often the case in situations in which a child lives with one parent during certain parts of a year or week, and lives with the other parent during other times.


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