The Best Custody Arrangements for Children

By Bernadette A. Safrath

When couples divorce or separate, a court must decide a custody arrangement for any children. There are two aspects to child custody–legal custody and physical custody. The parent with legal custody may raise the child as they see fit. This means making day-to-day decisions regarding education, extracurricular activities, religion and medical treatment. Physical custody refers to which parent the child will live with and for what amount of time.

Sole Custody

Sole custody was the most common custody arrangement as recently as the 1980s. Up through the 1980s, mothers were very often awarded sole custody of their children. The child will live only with the parent who is awarded sole custody. In addition, that parent has the exclusive right to control the child’s upbringing. Since the 1990s, courts generally award sole custody to one parent only if the other parent is considered unfit. A parent is unfit if she has a drug or alcohol abuse problem or has a history of child abuse. Absent one of those circumstances courts are more likely to award joint custody.

Joint Custody

Joint custody has become the preferred custody arrangement since the 1980s. Courts now think that parents should share the responsibilities of raising the child. Joint custody is also in the child’s best interests because it allows the child to maintain a relationship with each parent that is as close to the pre-divorce conditions as possible. When parents share joint physical and legal custody, the both have a say in how the child is raise and the child spends close to equal time living with each parent. Common arrangements are alternating split weeks, alternating weeks, alternating months or alternating years.

Bird's Nest Custody

Bird’s nest custody is a modern arrangement of joint custody, but is rare because it can be expensive. With this type of joint custody the child remains in the family residence. The parents rotate living there with the child, usually for six months at a time. The child is able to remain in the same school and participate in the same activities. The drawback to bird’s nest custody is that the parents pay for three residences: the family residence and each parent’s separate residence. Some parents also share the second residence, eliminating the third, but this is highly unusual.

Split Custody

Split custody is the most unlikely custody arrangement. Split custody is available when parents have more than one child. In this case each parent will have full custody of at least one child. Split custody is rare because courts do not like to separate siblings. However, there are some circumstances where split custody would be beneficial to all children. For example, each child might prefer to live with a different parent. In addition, a court may consider whether a child has special needs, whether one child has serious disciplinary problems or each child thrives better in the care of a different parent. In any of those circumstances, splitting the siblings may provide the least harmful custody arrangement for all the children.