The Different Types of Child Custody Explained

Little girl, laughing, being carried over the shoulder of her father

Child custody can often be an incredibly confusing subject. There are so many legal and professional terms that, if you’ve never gone through a custody case before, you may feel lost when you begin researching the many ins-and-outs of child custody. Let's explore the different types of custody. 

Once everything is broken down, understanding the specifics becomes much easier. Studying how child custody works may feel like a daunting task to begin; however, it is essential for parents who are going through a custody case to be comfortable with the particulars. That includes understanding the different types of custody, how it’s determined, and how they are defined.

Dependent on the state laws, parents may encounter alternate terms to the ones listed below. For example, Illinois law uses the terms 'allocation of parenting time' and 'allocation of parental responsibilities' rather than custody. Parents should always consult a family law professional in their state for questions about state-specific laws that govern co-parenting after a divorce or separation. 

Covered in this guide

The two basic types of custody

Legal custody

Physical custody

Sole custody

Joint custody

How is child custody determined

Different Types of Child Custody

There are two basic types of child custody that must be accounted for in any child custody agreement. These two types of custody are legal custody and physical custody.

These types must be further defined by whether they apply to one parent (sole) or both parents (joint). The two types of child custody can be defined in any possible combination.

For instance, a child custody agreement may order one co-parent to have sole legal custody while also ordering joint physical custody of the child.

Legal Custody

Legal custody concerns how important decisions about a child's upbringing are made. These decisions may include but are not limited to those regarding the child’s education, healthcare, and religious tutelage. 

Physical Custody

Physical custody essentially has to do with the everyday caretaking responsibilities for the child. Physical custody also determines the primary residence of the child. This means that the co-parents with physical custody of the child are responsible for providing the child with life essentials such as food, shelter, and clothing.

Sole Custody

Sole custody simply means that only one co-parent has custody of the child. Sole custody can be applied to either legal custody or physical custody, meaning that only one co-parent has physical custody or legal custody of the child.

If parents are unable to agree about the particulars of their child's upbringing due to conflict, a judge may grant sole legal custody to one co-parent. This may be done to prevent the family from returning to court for every disagreement. 

Joint Custody

Joint custody is just the opposite. It means that both co-parents share either physical custody or legal custody of the child.

When joint legal custody is ordered, both parents have a legal right to be a part of important decision-making processes. How co-parents navigate this joint responsibility day-to-day, however, is frequently determined by a family’s preferences. Nevertheless, if one co-parent excludes the other from these important decisions, they may potentially have to return to court for being in violation of their court order. 

In many states, it is common for custody arrangements to order joint physical custody. This is in large part due to a general consensus that spending significant, quality time with both parents benefits the health and happiness of children in the long-run. It is important to note that joint physical custody does not require that a child spend equal amounts of time with both parents. Rather, it means that the child spends significant time with both co-parents. 

How is child custody determined?

Many family law professionals prefer that co-parents try to come to an agreement on the different types of child custody outside of the courtroom. Creating parenting arrangements cooperatively sets a positive tone for the beginning of any co-parenting relationship.

It also costs parents significantly less time and money than battling it out in court. There are many family law professionals that can assist parents in reaching a parenting agreement together, such as parenting coordinators, mediators and collaborative law practitioners. 

If co-parents cannot come to an agreement on child custody, it will be up to a judge to determine what is in the best interest of the child.

All states have a specific set of factors that help them to determine the best interest of the child. While a majority of states have regulations covering both legal and physical custody, some employ different terminology. It is important for co-parents to get in touch with a family law professional in their specific state for more information on how custody is determined and the different types of child custody.


NOTE: Many state and federal laws use terms like ‘custody’ when referring to arrangements regarding parenting time and decision-making for a child. While this has been the case for many years, these are not the only terms currently used to refer to these topics.

Today, many family law practitioners and even laws within certain states use terms such as ‘parenting arrangements’ or ‘parenting responsibility,’ among others, when referring to matters surrounding legal and physical child custody. You will find these terms as well as custody used on the OurFamilyWizard website.