When parents decide to end their marriage, both parties must establish a parenting plan governing what parental rights each will be granted post divorce and who may have to pay child support. These decisions can have many different outcomes based on the unique factors impacting the family and the best interests of the child. If you’re a parent who’s just starting to explore the divorce process, here’s a quick review of possible custody arrangements and how they work.

How Do Physical & Legal Custody Differ?

All forms of child custody are placed into one of two categories: physical and legal. Physical custody describes which parent the child will reside with the most, called the Primary Residential Parent. Parents with legal custody will be responsible for making important decisions about the child’s care, such as those involving school, religion, and medical treatments. These broad classifications of child custody may either be shared by each parent or awarded to just one.

What Are the Main Types of Child Custody?  


child custodySole, or full, custody means that the child will primarily be cared for by one parent after the divorce. Parents who receive custodial rights will typically need to adhere to a visitation schedule to keep the child in their life. A third-party professional, such as a social worker, may need to supervise these visits if the non-custodial parent has a history of violence or substance abuse that endangers the child.


When joint custody is awarded, both parents will provide some degree of regular care for the child. In some cases, each side will have an equal share of rights. In other situations, one parent may hold a larger portion of parenting responsibilities.   


Third-party child custody may be necessary if the court finds the parents unfit for the responsibility. A parent may be found unfit if they have a demanding career, struggle with substance abuse, have unresolved mental health conditions, possess a criminal history, or exhibit violent tendencies. Typically, third-party custody is awarded to a close relative of the child, such as an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. While the parents may be unfit, they can still be awarded visitation rights.


Split custody is a rare outcome that occurs when each parent is awarded custodial rights for specific children. Courts will typically avoid this option because they don’t want to cause harm by separating siblings. However, this arrangement can make sense if the children are vastly different ages and prefer to live with one parent.


While child custody matters are emotionally and legally complex, you don’t have to face them alone. Providing family law representation in Johnson City, TN, with more than 30 years experience, the Law Office of Mark W. McFall is prepared to provide in-depth support through every stage of your divorce, including child support and custody decisions. For more details on these services, visit this Washington County divorce attorney online. To schedule an initial consultation, call (423) 926-3070.