Question of the week: How is child custody decided– and how do I understand custody definitions?



It can be confusing for anyone ministering to the child of divorce and or divorcing parents. Following are questions children’s ministers in particular have asked me.

  • Is there a formula that is used when deciding custody and visitation?
  • Do all states have the same rules when it comes to child custody?
  • What is legal co-parenting?
  • What is shared parenting?
  • What does sole custody mean?
  • How is visitation decided?

One would think that with the high divorce rate that by now we would have national standards for custody, visitation, etc. With close to one million children a year experiencing the break up of their parents, such a standard is needed. Not only do we not have any national legislation, terminology varies from location to location.

The only code for custody is the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act. Mainly this act determines which state is a child’s home state and it is the home state in which the courts can determine the fate of the child’s custody, visitation situation. (You can read more about the Uniform Child-Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act in the link above.)


By no means am I lawyer and the information contained in this post is not information that should be used to make legal decisions. It is general information to help you understand. I have included links that you can click on to learn more about the various subjects included in this post.

In the US each county court has its own child custody laws. In other words, the law varies literally from county to county. With that in mind, I’m going to give you some simple explanations about various terms used in today’s custody situations. But please remember– you will need to consult an attorney in your area if you want to know what the courts in your area are using to determine custody.

Custody Terminology

Sole custody is where the court awards one parent the sole physical and legal custody of the child. The other parent will normally be awarded specific visitation usually every other weekend and sometimes a weeknight each week is included.

Some divorce decrees will even break down the visitation schedule to specific terms including who gets the child on what holidays. Some divorce decrees also lay out the times to pick up the child and deliver the child back to the custodial parent.

Starting back in the early 70’s, most sole custody cases awarded children to their mothers. Since the 80’s, the courts have been moving away from sole custody. In some jurisdictions judges are moving to joint custody arrangements. In the county I now live in, almost every divorce case that goes to court joint custody is mandated. This gets very complicated when one of the parents is in the military and transfers out of the area.

Shared parenting (also known as collaborative parenting) is where both parents share in the responsibility for being actively involved in raising the child. In some locales it is used interchangeably with the term joint custody. There is currently research that shows shared parenting is better over-all for the children.

Joint physical custody is where the court awards both parents equal physical custody of the minor child. The child lives in each home equally. Usually there is a parenting plan or parenting schedule devised. In these situations rarely do you hear the term “visitation” being used as the child actually lives with both parents.

Joint legal custody each parent has the right to have access to all of the child’s records such as medical, educational, etc. Both parents make decisions about the child equally. Some say that in joint legal custody arrangements the parents continue to make decisions about the child just as if they had continued living together as a married couple. These decisions include decisions about schooling, religion, sports, afterschool activities, medical issues, educational issues, etc.

How is custody decided?

For years courts have tried to determine what is in the best interest of the child. This gets complicated when parents live in two different states. How can joint custody be awarded when the child is in school?

Other factors include

  • Emotional ties
  • Child’s age
  • Family history of abuse and domestic violence
  • Family history of neglect
  • Noticeable substance abuse problems
  • Medical issues (what if one parent is terminally ill?)
  • Significant mental health issues of one of the parents
  • Poor parenting by one of the parents
  • Willingness of both parents to be equally yoked when it comes to decision making about the child

Over all, the best interest of the child takes into consideration what is best for the child mentally, emotionally and physically. But as you can guess, that can certainly be an illusive concept when taking into consideration so many family issues.

Many times you may hear the term co-parenting. In co-parenting the parents are saying they agree to parent the child equally. Co-parenting describes a situation where the parents are not married but still parenting the child. For some children it is a situation where the parents were never married. For other children the parents were married and now divorced but still agree to try and maintain a stable relationship for the welfare of the child.

I hope this blog post gives you a glimpse into some of the parenting situations after divorce. These are generalities and are not specific to any particular divorce situation. When ministering to divorcing partners you are going to come across hundreds of different situations. As a church leader it is important not to get caught up in the crossfire. Take each situation to the Lord in prayer. Listen and ask how you can help the family with particular needs.

Even though some parents struggle to make their relationship stable for the sake of the children, many times it is still difficult for the child. That is why I constantly write, speak and even beg church leaders to try and understand these children.

Many of these kids desperately need the church family to reach out to them. I have often said it takes a village to raise a child of divorce and that village should be the church family.

Here are some programs that help divorcing and separating situations


DC4K, DivorceCare for Kids

Single & Parenting

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