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What is Child Custody?

Michael Pollick
Updated May 23, 2024
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Child custody is a term used in family law courts to define legal guardianship of a child under the age of 18. During divorce or marriage annulment proceedings, the issue of child custody often becomes a matter for the court to determine. In most cases, both parents continue to share legal child custody but one parent gains physical custody. Family law courts generally base decisions on the best interests of the child or children, not always on the best arguments of each parent.

Child custody laws are almost always created and enforced by individual states, not the federal government. This means a family court judge in Georgia may use a different standard for evaluating the fitness of a parent than a judge in Massachusetts. Most states also allow for independent legal representation for the minor(s) involved in a custody hearing. Petitions for child custody can also be entered by grandparents, great-grandparents or non-relatives who have acted in the capacity of parent to the child involved.

In general, courts tend to award physical custody to the parent who demonstrates the most financial security, adequate parenting skills and the least disruption for the child. Both parents continue to share legal custody until the minor has reached the age of 18 or becomes legally emancipated. Legal custody means that either parent can make decisions which affect the welfare of the child, such as medical treatments, religious practices and insurance claims. Physical custody means that one parent is held primarily responsible for the child's housing, educational needs and food. In most cases, the non-custodial parent still has visitation rights.

Most child custody cases end amicably, with former spouses agreeing to visitation schedules and support payments from the non-custodial parent. Some cases, however, must be judged based on the relative fitness of each parent to raise children. In extreme cases, a parent may be permanently denied visitation if his or her presence could seriously damage a child's sense of security. Contrary to movie and television portrayals, few parents are deemed so unfit that even supervised visitation is out of the question. Anger at a spouse does not always equal irresponsible parenting in child custody hearings.

One controversial aspect of child custody is an apparent bias towards mothers as primary custodians. States such as Pennsylvania used to follow an unofficial legal code called the "Tender Years Doctrine". Under this guideline, most custody rulings were in favor of the mother if there was no compelling evidence to the contrary. The belief was that mothers possess a protective instinct which made them better candidates for single parenting. Fathers would need to hire child care workers or enroll their children in daycare centers during working hours. This philosophy has changed over the years, allowing fathers to petition for sole custody if the mother is declared unfit.

One important thing to keep in mind during and after custody proceedings is the court's right to change its mind at any time. If enough objective evidence reaches the court's ears, custody arrangements can be amended quickly. This becomes important if one parent wants to move to a distant location or fails to adhere to a court-approved visitation schedule.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to PublicPeople, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By subway11 — On Jan 27, 2011

Cupcake15 - What a great tip. I just wanted to say that if it makes you feel better judges tend to favor mothers in child custody legal battles.

In about 70% of the cases a judge awards custody to the mother and in about 20 percent of the time the judge awards joint custody to both parents. In only 10% of the cases the father receives custody of the child.

There are child custody guidelines and you cannot have your parental rights taken away like that without a hearing. Do see a child custody lawyer right away.

By cupcake15 — On Jan 26, 2011

Anon143512 - I am so sorry this happened to you. I would see a family law attorney right away.

As a parent you do have legal rights. Child custody lawyers are there to protect your child custody rights as a parent.

There is a site called Law Help.org that helps moderate and low income clients receive legal services for free.

You just have to click on the state that you are from and they will put you in touch with local legal services that can help you. Good luck and I hope everything works out for you.

By anon143512 — On Jan 16, 2011

I've never been served custody papers but he says he's got full custody of her when i never even knew he was taking me to court. nothing was signed and now he won't let me see or talk to her.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to PublicPeople, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide...
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