Should I Be the Primary or Non-Custodial Parent?

Navigating a divorce is never easy, but it can be especially tough when kids are involved. One of the most pressing issues you must face as a divorcing parent is how to determine the custody of a child. 

There are two types of child custody in the U.S.: legal and physical. The person with whom a child lives primarily has physical custody. The person (or persons) who make important decisions for the child has legal custody. Note that parents often hold joint legal custody.

Even when parents have joint custody, however, one of them is typically designated the primary custodial parent while the other is called the non-primary custodial parent.

In most custody cases, the parent with primary physical custody is also the one with primary legal custody. By understanding the implications and responsibilities of custodial duties, you may gain a better understanding of what would fit your situation best.

We don’t cover sole physical custody or sole physical custody in this blog. To learn more about sole custody, check out our article, Does Sole Custody Terminate Parental Rights?

What it means to be the primary custodial parent

The primary custodial parent is typically the parent who spends most time with the child. As the primary custodial parent, you will be responsible for the following:

  • Providing food, shelter, and clothing for your child
  • Providing a stable environment for the child that ensures their emotional and physical safety 
  • Daily decision-making about the child’s health, education, and well-being 
  • Facilitating parenting time with the child’s non-primary custodial parent
In most cases, children live with the primary custodial parent and share scheduled parenting time with their non-primary custodial parent.

What it means to be the non-custodial parent

Even if your child doesn’t live primarily with you, your role as a parent is just as important. As the non-primary custodial parent, you’ll be responsible for the following:

  • Maintaining regular communication, connection, and a visitation schedule with your child
  • Upholding your agreed-upon parenting time schedules
  • Being involved in the major decisions concerning your child’s upbringing

FAQ about custody roles in divorce

If we have joint custody, is one of us still primary?

Even if you and your ex-spouse share joint custody of your child, there will still be a designated primary and designated non-primary custodial parent. Within that framework, however, parents can collaborate on anything, from visitation arrangements to medical care.

Does the non-custodial parent have fewer parental rights or responsibilities?

A non-primary custodial parent has all the same parental rights as a custodial parent, but those rights may be exercised differently. Even if your child custody arrangements have you spending less time with your child, you can still play a significant role in their life. 

Does the non-custodial parent always pay child support?

Because the costs of being a primary caregiver are generally higher, the non-primary custodial parent typically pays child support to the primary custodial parent to share the costs of raising the child. 

Which role should you have?

When making custody decisions, your goal should be to implement arrangements in the best interests of the child. You’ll want to do the following:

  • Consider your circumstances. What kind of custodial arrangement do your work schedule, living arrangements, and resources support? Is the child’s age an important factor in your decision? Would one arrangement be better for your child’s well-being or mental health than another?
  • Consider your co-parent. Talk with your spouse, and consider a cooperative approach that satisfies both of you. It can help to work together on a parenting plan that reflects the best interests of your minor children.
  • Consider mediation. Child custody mediation can help you and your spouse untangle disagreements about custody of the child. It can help you work as co-parents toward a mutually beneficial custody arrangement. 

Helpful: Child Custody Mediation Checklist

Whether you choose to be the primary or non-primary custodial parent, your focus should be on providing your child with a loving and nurturing environment that includes both you and your spouse. Prioritizing communication and flexibility with your co-parent puts your child’s well-being above all else. 

One of the most contentious issues in a divorce is often child custody. At Hello Divorce, we are here to help with services,  legal advice, and other resources to enable you and your spouse to come to a custody arrangement that works for everyone. Schedule a free call to learn more. 

Divorce Content Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Process, Mental Health
Candice is a former paralegal and has spent the last 16 years in the digital landscape, writing website content, blog posts, and articles for the legal industry. Now, at Hello Divorce, she is helping demystify the complex legal and emotional world of divorce. Away from the keyboard, she’s a devoted wife, mom, and grandmother to two awesome granddaughters who are already forces to be reckoned with. Based in Florida, she’s an avid traveler, painter, ceramic artist, and self-avowed bookish nerd.