Types of Child Custody Arrangements

When a couple divorces there are tough issues that a court must address. One of the most difficult being the type the child custody arrangement. The law strongly prefers that the parents decide outside of the courtroom a visitation and custody arrangement. However, if the parents aren’t able to decide for themselves, the court will issue an order that it believes is in the best interests of the child. Family Code § 3011. There are multiple types of child custody arrangements that the court may order. These include:

  • Sole custody
  • Joint custody
  • Divided custody
  • Split custody
  • Legal custody
  • Physical custody
  • Non-parent custody


Types of Child Custody

To learn more about the types of child custody arrangements, review the below sections to help you consider which option may be best for you. However, reviewing this page is not a substitute for speaking with a family law attorney. Your lawyer will be able to advise you which the court is most likely to award and which is unlikely.

Sole Custody

This type of custody allows for one parent to be entitled to physical and legal custody of a child, as decided by the court. The other parent may be allowed limited visitation, but won’t have rights to make decisions regarding the child. Most of the time when sole custody is arranged, the non-custodial parent has been deemed an unfit parent for one reason or another, including having a violent domestic history or problems with addiction.

Exclusive Custody is “legal” and “physical” custody of the child, given to one parent. This allows the custodial parent to have primary physical control of the child as well as the ability to make decisions about the child’s health, welfare, residence, and education. The non-custodial parent does have the rights to secondary visitations and parental rights to request change of custody arrangements. As in the case of Marriage of Brown & Yana, the noncustodial parent was entitled to an evidentiary hearing (live testimony hearing) when the custodial parent made a decision to relocate the child out-of-state. The parent who does not have custody still holds parental rights, meaning that he/she can seek modification to custody by showing proper change of circumstances.

If you want to know how to get full custody of your children in Orange County, read this blog post here.

Sole Physical Custody[1] gives one parent the exclusive physical custody or the child, but not sole legal custody. The child will live with the custodial parent and be supervised by him/her, subject to the other parent’s visitation rights. However, decisions regarding the child’s health, welfare, residence, and education must be agreed upon by both parents.

Sole Legal Custody[2] may be given to a parent, giving only him/her the right and responsibility to make the decisions regarding the child’s welfare, education and health. Without Sole Physical custody, both parents have the right to decide on the child’s residence and supervision. If both sole legal and sole physical custody are awarded to one parent, then that parent has Exclusive custody as detailed above.

Joint Custody

In joint custody,[3] both parents are given rights to make decisions for the child. There are different types of joint custody though. In a joint custody arrangement, both parents have access to all of the child’s records, including, but not limited to: medical, dental, and school records.[4] Both parents are responsible for keeping each other informed and being informed of the child’s school events, social outings and any other activities. Another important factor in sharing custody is that each parent should be informed of the other parent’s residence location and be able to get in contact with them at any time. Co-parenting requires the ability to work with the other parent to make decisions and to do that, communication is key.

“Pure” Joint Custody allows both parents to have equal say in controlling and supervising the child’s well-being. Neither parent has sole “physical” or “legal” custody. Customarily, time with the child is split evenly between the two parents, including time spent having the child live with them. In a true “pure” joint custody arrangement, the child lives with each parent about half the time.

Joint Legal Custody[5] is a more common joint custody arrangement, where both parents have equal rights in making short and long-term decisions about how to raise the child. The physical custody is awarded to one parent though, meaning that the child will live primarily with one parent. Though the child lives with one parent, they both share in the responsibility of making decisions for the child’s best interest. We’ve written an entire blog post on parental rights in joint legal custody situations.

Joint Physical Custody is awarded to one parent, giving them the responsibility of caring for the child on a daily basis. Joint physical custody divides the time in which the child resides with each parent. During the time that the parent has physical custody of the child, he/she is responsible for the day-to-day activities, like meal times, bed times, or getting homework done. In the time that one parent doesn’t have physical custody of the child, the non-custodial parent is granted visitation rights and still shares the legal responsibility with the custodial parent.

Types of Child Custody | CA Family Law Attorney

Divided or Split Custody

If the divided or split custody arrangement is assumed, the parents share custody of the child for a finite period of time. It’s different than joint custody because each parent is responsible for the child full-time, during the time that the child is with them. For instance, the mother has exclusive custodial responsibility of the child for the first half of the year and the father has exclusive custody of the child the second half of the year. The non-custodial parent does have visitation rights when they are not supervising the child.

Nonparent Custody

In certain cases, a nonparent such as a grandparent, can fight for custody of the child.[6] The court usually grants a non-parent custody if there is clear proof that the child will be harmed in some way if they remain with the parents.

Custody of the child is different than having legal guardianship. A legal guardianship usually ends only with the death of the guardian or when the child reaches adult age. In contrast, nonparent custody can be frequently modified especially if significant changes happen in the parents’ lives.

Consult with a Family Lawyer Regarding the Types of Child Custody

Speak with a California family lawyer if you need help regarding the types of child custody. Their are significant differences in the various types of child custody. Whether you’re looking to have full custody or make modifications to your current arrangements, you can get help to figure out the best options. Reasons for adjusting the types of child custody may include, but not limited to:

  • Divorce
  • Legal separation
  • Nullity
  • Domestic abuse
  • Absent or unfit parent
  • Death of custodial parent
  • Parent abuses drugs or alcohol
  • Fails to allow child visitation
  • Past conduct showing uncooperative parenting
  • One parent wants to move out of state with a child of yours

Get an experienced legal representative on your side during this difficult time. If you don’t understand how this process works, get a consultation regarding the types of child custody arrangements. An experienced lawyer will know whether you have a good change at getting a certain type of arrangement.

Child custody is different that visitation rights. For more information about visitation, click our visitation rights page.

Footnotes regarding the different types of child custody arrangements: 

[1] Family Law Code §3007

[2] Family Law Code §3006

[3] Family Law Code §3002

[4] Family Law Code §3025

[5] Family Law Code §3003

[6] Family Law Code §3041