Child custody is a common term used in reference to the rights and responsibilities parents have when sharing parenting duties and responsibilities. Child custody refers to the care of the children, and visitation refers to the time each parent will spend with the children. Parents in divorce situations need to decide on both child custody and visitation.
Either parent can have custody, or both can share custody. There are two types of child custody, they are legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody refers to a parent's right to make important decisions for the children, and physical custody refers to which parent the children reside with. In addition, legal custody can be joint, when both parents share the rights and responsibilities for making important decisions concerning the health, education and welfare of the children, or sole when one parent has these rights and responsibilities.
Important decisions that parents with legal custody of the children may make can include schooling decisions, medical decisions, and decisions about the child's participation in extracurricular activities.
Joint physical custody refers to an arrangement when the children live with both parents. Sole, or primary physical custody, refers to when the children live with one parent the majority of the time and the other parent typically has visitation with the children.
Parents who share joint legal custody do not have to agree on each decision made, however, they should communicate to help avoid disputes. The family court judge makes a final determination concerning child custody and visitation, however, a parenting plan decided upon by the parents will typically be approved. The family law judge can also make a determination concerning child custody and visitation in the event the parents are unable to agree. Following a divorce or separation, it is often best for parents to be able to reach agreements themselves because it gives them more control over the process and can lead to happier outcomes. However, if a custody dispute arises, the parents can turn to the family law courts to make final decisions related to child custody issues.
Source: California Courts, "Basics of Custody & Visitation Orders," Accessed Oct. 3, 2015