Types of Custody
Legal custody of a child is the right and obligation to make decisions about a child's upbringing. Decisions regarding schooling, and medical and dental care, for example, are made by a parent with legal custody. In many states, courts now award joint legal custody to the parents, which means that the decision making is shared. If you share joint legal custody with the other parent and exclude him or her from the decision-making process, your ex can take you back to court and ask the judge to enforce the original custody agreement. You won't get fined or go to jail, but it will probably be embarrassing and cause more friction between the two of you -- and it may harm the children. What's more, if you're represented by an attorney, it's sure to be expensive.
Physical custody is the right of a parent to have a child live with him. Some states recognize the concept of joint physical custody where the child spends approximately half the time in each parent's home. The latter arrangement is tricky and should be considered only if you have an amicable, respectful relationship with your ex. Also, it works best if you live near the other parent. This lessens the stress on children and allows them to maintain a somewhat normal routine.
Sole custody means that only the custodial parent has physical custody and legal custody of a child, and that the noncustodial parent has visitation rights. In most states, courts are moving away from awarding sole custody to one parent, and they are often enlarging the role a father plays in his children's lives. This translates into physical custody for one parent with joint legal custody shared by both -- plus a generous visitation schedule. Courts may not hesitate to award physical custody to the father if the mother is deemed unfit -- for example, because of alcohol or drug dependency, an unfit boyfriend or child abuse or neglect charges. It's understandable that there may be animosity between you and your ex-spouse, but sole custody shouldn't be sought unless the parent is a direct harm to the children. Even then courts may simply order supervised visitation, while still allowing joint legal custody.
Parents who don't live together have joint custody (also called shared custody) when they agree, or a court orders them, to share the decision-making responsibilities for, and/or physical control and custody of, their children. Joint custody can exist if the parents are divorced, separated, no longer cohabiting or even if they never lived together. Joint custody may be joint legal custody, joint physical custody (where the children spend a significant portion of time with each parent) or both. It is common for couples who share physical custody to also share legal custody, but not necessarily the other way around.
Usually, when parents share joint custody, they work out joint physical custody according to their schedules and housing arrangements. If the parents cannot agree, the court will impose an arrangement. A common pattern is for children to split weeks between each parent's house. Other joint physical custody arrangements include alternating years or six-month periods, or spending weekends and holidays with one parent while spending weekdays with the other.
Joint custody has the advantages of assuring the children continuing contact and involvement with both parents, and alleviating some of the burdens of parenting for each parent. There are, of course, disadvantages -- children must be shuttled around, parental non-cooperation can have seriously devastating effects on children and maintaining two homes for the children can be expensive.
Bird's Nest Custody
Bird's nest custody is a joint custody arrangement where the children remain in the family home and the parents take turns moving in and out.