How is Child Custody Determined?

If you share kids with your spouse and are planning to get a divorce, you undoubtedly have multiple questions swirling through your mind. Who will get custody of the kids? How will their custody be determined? Will you – and the kids – be satisfied with whatever child custody arrangement is established?

How child custody is determined

First, let’s look at how child custody arrangements are determined. The answer is not cut-and-dried; it depends on your marital situation, including how well you and your spouse get along and communicate with each other. Can you set aside your differences and have a drama-free discussion about the kids? Or do the two of you need a little extra help?

Deciding custody with your co-parent

In the best-case scenario, you and your spouse will be divorcing amicably, and between the two of you, you’ll agree on the child custody arrangement that seems best for everybody. In an uncontested divorce, a couple files a joint petition detailing their wishes for all aspects of the marriage, from property and asset division to child custody.

You can read more about the differences between uncontested and contested divorce in our article titled What Is Contested vs. Uncontested Divorce, and How Does Each Work?

Deciding custody with mediation

In a contested divorce, a couple finds it difficult to communicate peaceably and to agree on one or more aspects of their divorce settlement. This may include their child custody arrangement. In this situation, the court may order you to attend child custody mediation. Note that each state, and each judge, may have their own specific practices regarding child custody mediation.

Even if your local court doesn’t order you to go through child custody mediation, it may be a good idea to hire a mediator to help you make these tough decisions.

Deciding custody with a special master

To settle your child custody dispute, you might hire a special master. A special master may be a mental health specialist, mediator, or lawyer who specializes in helping couples make these tough collaborative decisions. For more information, read our article, Can a Special Master Help in My Child Custody Matter?

Watch: Do I have to share custody 50/50 with my ex after divorce?

Different types of child custody arrangements 

Whether you make child custody decisions with your spouse, get decision-making help from a mediator, or hire a special master, you’ll need to understand the different types of child custody arrangements: joint custody, shared custody, and full custody.

Joint custody

In a joint custody arrangement, both parents retain equal control over child-rearing decisions (where the child goes to school, what faith they practice, and so on). In this situation, the child’s time is generally split between the two parents. The ratio may be 50/50, 60/40, 70/30, or another agreed-upon arrangement.

  • Benefit of joint custody: Both parents have a voice in important child-rearing decisions
  • Disadvantage of joint custody: “Joint” does not necessarily refer to physical custody, so a 50/50 time split is not guaranteed.

Shared custody

People sometimes confuse joint custody with shared custody, but they’re not exactly the same. With shared custody, the primary goal is to make the amount of time the child spends with each parent as equal as possible. Thus, the timeshare ratio is more likely to be 50/50 than 60/40 or 70/30.

  • Benefit of shared custody: Equal time with each parent is a primary focus of the arrangement.
  • Disadvantage of shared custody: Shared custody does not guarantee legal custody; both parents may not have equal decision-making rights for the child.

Full custody

In a full-custody situation, one parent has sole decision-making rights for the child. They are also likely to have sole physical custody, although visitation (supervised or unsupervised) may still be possible for the other parent.

  • Benefit of full custody: It can help protect the child from the domestic instability of an abusive (or otherwise unsafe) parent.
  • Disadvantages of full custody: One parent bears complete responsibility; the other parent gets comparatively little, which can be painful for both the parent and the child.

How Hello Divorce can help with custody matters 

Perhaps no issue in divorce evokes stronger emotions than child custody. You want what’s best for your child and your family – we get that at Hello Divorce. That’s why we offer several flat-rate services to help you, including hourly mediation (where your custody issues can be explored) and attorney appointments of 30 minutes or more where you can ask questions and get the advice you need to move forward.

Divorce Specialists
After spending years in toxic and broken family law courts, and seeing that no one wins when “lawyer up,” we knew there was an opportunity to do and be better. We created Hello Divorce to the divorce process easier, affordable, and completely online. Our guiding principles are to make sure both spouses feel heard, supported, and set up for success as they move into their next chapter in life.