9 Terms to Know When Making Child Custody Decisions

For divorcing parents, navigating parenting plans, parenting time, and child custody agreements is no walk in the park. It can feel overwhelming, especially if you’re just starting the process. There are numerous terms and clauses you must understand to resolve things correctly. Heaped on top of that, of course, are the many complicated emotions and stressors of divorce.

We’ve got your back. In this article, we break down nine of the most common terms you’re likely to see and hear in the coming months so you understand what you’re dealing with as your journey unfolds.

1. Legal custody 

Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make decisions about their child’s life and upbringing. A parent with legal custody makes decisions about the child’s education, healthcare, and day-to-day activities. For example, legal custody gives a parent the right to decide where the child attends school, what extracurricular activities they participate in, and where they receive medical treatment.

A judge might award sole legal custody to one parent or joint legal custody to both parents. In most cases, some variation of joint legal custody is awarded. An exception would be if sole legal custody served the best interest of the child.

When parents share legal custody, they make parenting decisions just as they did during the marriage. This means you cannot change your child’s school or consent to vaccinations without consulting with the other parent first. Failing to do so would be grounds for the other parent to take you to court to enforce custody orders.

2. Physical custody

Physical custody refers to a parent’s right to have a child live with them on a daily basis. Just as with legal custody, parents may receive sole physical custody or joint custody, the latter of which involves a shared custody arrangement.

Physical custody differs from legal custody in that it only defines where the child will live, not who will make decisions regarding their care. In fact, there are times when parents share physical custody but only one parent has legal custody (or vice versa). This is because physical custody is usually based on where each parent lives and each parent’s ability to physically care for the child on a daily basis, whereas legal custody is based on the parent’s ability to make sound decisions in the best interest of the child.

For example, if one parent moved across the country for work and had little familial support, they may not be a good candidate for shared physical custody. As another example, a parent’s substance use issues might make them ineligible for joint physical custody. In these scenarios, however, the parent may still have visitation rights and share joint legal custody of the child.

3. Shared custody

Shared custody refers to divorced parents raising their children jointly. As mentioned, parents may be awarded shared legal custody, shared physical custody, or both.

Parents with shared legal custody make parenting decisions together. This means they determine their child’s school together, select a doctor for their child together, and decide which activities the child will participate in together. They may attend doctor's appointments together, select a religion for the child, and go to concerts or sporting events with the child.

Parents with shared physical custody usually follow a set custody schedule that details the days and times the child will live with each parent. Shared physical custody can be a 50/50 timeshare, but the amount of time isn’t always evenly split. In fact, many parents follow other arrangements, such as 60/40 or 70/30 timeshare percentages. There are many variations of custody schedules parents can agree to based on what makes sense for the child.

4. Sole custody

Sole custody means one parent maintains custody of the child without the other parent. As with shared custody, a parent could receive sole legal custody of a child, sole physical custody of a child, or both.

Most of the time, a parent receives sole legal custody when documented evidence exists that the other parent is abusive or otherwise unfit to make decisions regarding a child’s care. This may be due to an underlying issue like substance abuse or severe untreated mental illness. A parent might also receive sole legal custody if the other parent has no interest in making decisions for the child or signs away their parental rights.

Although a parent could receive sole physical custody for the reasons mentioned above, there are additional reasons why they might receive sole custody. Since physical custody involves the child living in the home, parents who do not have stable housing may be deemed ineligible for joint physical custody. This often happens when one parent is homeless, living in transitional housing, or living in a house deemed unsafe for children. Also, a parent who is currently incarcerated or in a treatment facility may not have physical custody of the child.

Watch: We can't agree on custody. Now what?


5. Visitation

When one parent does not have physical custody of a child, they are usually granted visitation rights as part of the divorce decree. The court typically determines a visitation schedule for the non-custodial parent that maintains consistency in the child’s schedule. Visits may be unsupervised or supervised, depending on the reasons behind the non-custodial parent’s lack of custody rights.

Visitation schedules commonly include either an every-other-weekend format or weekly visits. For example, a child may live with their custodial parent during the week but have overnight stays with the non-custodial parent every other weekend, say from Friday after school through Sunday afternoon. Or, the child may have shorter weekly visits for one to three hours (sometimes more) one evening per week. The schedule is usually based on the distance the parents live from each other, the child’s age, and other factors specific to the family.

6. Child custody mediation

Child custody mediation can help parents reach custody agreements outside the courtroom. In these cases, a neutral third party (the mediator) meets with parents to help them navigate custody-related issues. These issues often include establishing a parenting schedule, determining custody percentages, and child-related financial matters that fall outside of the scope of child support (i.e., how much financial support each parent will contribute toward medical expenses or after-school care). 

Child custody mediation may be private or court-ordered. In private child custody mediation, divorcing couples enter mediation voluntarily to reach a settlement. This is usually more cost-effective than going to court to finalize a custody agreement, and it gives parents more say in the specifics of their parenting plan. 

Family court mediation, or court-ordered mediation, is a mandated form of mediation parents may have to undergo before taking their divorce to court. These programs are typically free or offered at a reduced price, but they come with time restrictions and less open discussion than private mediation.

7. “The best interest of the child”

When you read about child custody laws, you will quickly notice that most of them stipulate that all decisions a judge makes are in “the best interest of the child.” But what does that mean?

Regardless of how amicable or conflict-ridden your divorce proceedings are, all decisions regarding the children you share should place their happiness, emotional development, and mental health at the forefront. This is what acting in a child’s best interest means: You look at what’s best for their overall well-being in the short-term and the long-term.

Experts agree it’s usually in a child’s best interest to maintain a relationship with both parents. As such, courts usually rule in favor of some form of joint physical custody – especially if both parents are capable of raising the child and physical proximity allows them to do so.

However, there are times when the best interest of the child is to not award joint physical or legal custody. Examples include situations involving domestic violence or substance abuse where one parent cannot provide a stable home. 

8. Request for orders (RFO)

In the context of family court, a request for orders (RFO) is a special hearing request to ask the judge for some form of temporary relief during the divorce process. Typically, an RFO is filed by one parent to help determine a temporary custody schedule or provide temporary child support. This can be important for high-conflict divorce cases where parents are struggling to reach an agreement.

When one party completes a request for order, the other party must be served the order. The served party has a specific period of time to respond or provide requested documentation before the goes before a judge. A hearing date will be scheduled, and both parties typically attend the proceedings alongside their attorneys to reach an agreement for the matter presented in the request for order.

9. Co-parenting

Co-parenting is a term used to describe separated or divorced parents, usually residing in separate homes, who share child-raising responsibilities. In many cases, co-parenting relationships involve parental communication and joint decision-making about the child. Co-parenting relationships may include stepparents who join the family through marriage.

Maintaining a healthy co-parenting relationship is in the best interest of the child. However, it can be hard to do this with someone you don’t see eye-to-eye with or have an intense history with. It requires a willingness to set aside your differences for the sake of your children.

Strategies that can help co-parents make the most of their relationship include the following:

  • Communicate directly about the children.
  • Be flexible with schedules and other matters (within reason).
  • Adopt a unified parenting approach.
  • Maintain healthy boundaries.
  • Keep the child’s best interest at the forefront of all decisions.

How to resolve custody disputes

Resolving child custody disputes and establishing a parenting plan can feel impossible at times, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, Hello Divorce offers services that can help you find a solution that satisfies everybody. You can take advantage of our mediation services by the hour or as part of one of our inclusive plans. You can also use our team for coaching sessions to help you understand your parenting rights, draft documents, or go over child custody laws in your state.

You’ll also find lots of free resources on our website that can help you learn more about custody and other co-parenting issues.

No matter what stage of the divorce process you’re in, remember that your child deserves the best possible outcome. By understanding the terms and legal jargon involved in child custody cases, you’re on your way to making the best decisions for everyone involved – especially your child.


Divorce Content Specialist
Communication, Mediation, Relationships, Divorce Insights
A content writer and editor for several digital publications and businesses, including Make Tech Easier, How-To Geek, and Clean Email.