Child Custody Law

What is Child Custody law? This subset of law also often overlaps with facets of divorce law. Child custody refers to the legal obligation and right a parent or guardian has to care for, make decisions for, supervise, educate and control a minor child for whom he/she is responsible. The issue of child custody may arise in any of the following situations: when a married couple with a minor child of the marriage seeks a divorce; when two unmarried parents of a minor child cannot come to an agreement about custody outside of court; when a parent or legal guardian is found to be unfit or dangerous for the child’s well-being by a court or state agency; and when either or both parents are absent or deceased. Custody is not limited to the child’s parent, but can also be awarded to other family members, to a foster parent or group home, or to other organizations or institutions.

There are two main categories for child custody, legal and physical, which are then also assigned as either sole or joint. Legal custody deals more with the rights and responsibilities of a parent as opposed to where the child resides. It allocates who can make decisions about major issues in the child’s life, such as education, medical and healthcare decisions and the child’s overall welfare. An award of joint legal custody makes it necessary for the responsible parties to communicate and work with one another to share in these decisions. Physical custody addresses where the child will reside and for how long, and who will have the day to day responsibility and right to make necessary decisions regarding the child’s daily activities and wellbeing. When joint physical custody is awarded, the child will spend time residing with both parents and/or guardians. This does not mean that the time must be divided equally; rather it might be an arrangement explicitly spelled out by the parties or based on stated guidelines and shared payment of costs for raising the child.

All states have adopted the policy that child custody arrangements and awards must be based upon the best interest of the child. Although the factors considered for determining this may vary from state to state. When the parents/guardians can get along and agree to it, the court may award joint physical and/or joint legal custody. Generally, when one parent/guardian is granted sole physical custody, the other parent/guardian will be awarded visitation, which includes weekends, some holidays and vacation time and other occasions, as applicable. Courts reserve the right to modify custody arrangements when the circumstances call for it.

For more information about individual child custody laws, procedures and related topics for U.S. states, please visit our U.S. Divorce Law Center.


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Child Custody Law - US

  • ABA - Center on Children and the Law
  • ABA - Custody Committee

    The Custody Committee studies and strives for improvements in the law relating to child custody and visitation, such as development of a model joint custody statute, standards for relocating children and rights of stepparents and unwed parents.

  • Administration for Children and Families (ACF)

    The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) is a federal agency funding state, territory, local, and tribal organizations to provide family assistance (welfare), child support, child care, Head Start, child welfare, and other programs relating to children and families.

  • Child Custody - Overview

    In cases of divorce, the court of jurisdiction for the divorce proceedings also determines child custody arrangements.

  • Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA)

    Full text of the UCCJEA, which limits child custody jurisdiction to one state, avoiding competing orders, and provides enforcement provisions for child custody orders.

Organizations Related to Child Custody Law

Publications Related to Child Custody Law

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