8 Different Types of Child Custody Explained

by | Mar 7, 2024 | Children, Custody, Divorce, Family, Family Law

When it comes to getting divorced with children involved, most people don’t realize there are several types of child custody arrangements. In this article, we will explain eight different types of child custody.

1. Legal Custody: Making Decisions for the Child’s Future 

Legal Custody means the power to make major decisions regarding your child’s future and welfare.  In Alabama, parents can have sole legal custody or joint legal custody.

Alabama Code defines sole legal custody as “One parent has sole rights and responsibilities to make major decisions concerning the child, including, but not limited to, the education of the child, health care, and religious training.” Ala. Code 30-3-151 Definitions (Code Of Alabama (2024 Edition))

Alabama Code defines joint legal custody as: 

Both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child, including, but not limited to, the education of the child, health care, and religious training.

The court may designate one parent to have the sole power to make certain decisions while both parents retain equal rights and responsibilities for other decisions.

Ala. Code 30-3-151 Definitions (Code Of Alabama (2024 Edition))

Joint legal custody is the most typical form of legal custody that we see here in Mobile and Baldwin Counties in divorce and other custody orders.  When parents have joint legal custody, they are expected to work together to try to make joint decisions about the child on matters such as education, extra-curricular activities, health care, and religion, whenever possible. 

Typically, the parent who has physical custody ends up having the final say on major decisions, or the court may designate one parent or the other as a tiebreaker decisionmaker over particular decisions.


2. Physical Custody: Understanding Where the Child Resides 

Physical custody is where the child resides.  As discussed above, the parent with physical custody ends up having the final say on major decisions regarding the child most of the time, unless otherwise specified. 

The terms “primary physical custody” or “primary custody” are terms that have also been used interchangeably with physical custody, but they are not terms that are listed in the Alabama Code.


3. Sole Physical Custody: What It Means for Parents 

The Alabama Code defines Sole Physical Custody as “One parent has sole physical custody and the other parent has rights of visitation except as otherwise provided by the court.” Ala. Code 30-3-151 Definitions (Code Of Alabama (2024 Edition)).

In a typical sole physical custody arrangement, the children will live with one parent most of the time and have visitation with the other parent, including alternate weekends and one night of mid-week visitation each week.  


4. Joint Physical Custody: Collaborative Parenting Solutions 

Joint Physical Custody is defined by Alabama Code as “Physical custody is shared by the parents in a way that assures the child frequent and substantial contact with each parent.

Joint physical custody does not necessarily mean physical custody of equal durations of time.” Ala. Code 30-3-151 Definitions (Code Of Alabama (2024 Edition)).

While joint custody is does not necessarily mean equal amounts of time with each parent, in practice, it typically does mean equal amounts of time with each parent. 

The most common joint custody arrangement seen in Mobile and Baldwin County, Alabama is alternating weeks of custody, changing the children either on Fridays or Sundays.  

Another arrangement families with younger children sometimes use is known as a “2-2-5” schedule.  An example would be that Mom has the children Mondays and Tuesdays, Dad has the children Wednesdays and Thursdays, and the parents alternate weekends. 

This means the children never have to go an entire week without seeing their other parent.


5. Joint Custody: Balancing Time and Responsibilities 

Joint Custody is defined under Alabama Code as both joint legal and physical custody.  Joint custody can be very successful, but there are a lot of factors that go into making joint custody a success or not.  

First, how will you handle major decisions?  Your arrangement could be true joint where you have to agree on all major decisions.  Another option would be to make one parent the final tiebreaker for all major decisions.  Yet another option would be to divide these responsibilities up. 

For instance, Mom can be the final decisionmaker regarding academics and extracurricular activities, and Dad can be the final decisionmaker regarding health care and religion.  If other topics are important to your family, you could include those as well.

Second, where will you each live after the divorce?  Joint custody requires a lot of going back and forth, and it makes things easier on the parents and the children if you live fairly close to each other.

Third, what will your schedule be?  Week on, week off is the most common option, but there are other options as discussed above.  

Finally, are you able to cooperate and work together for the benefit of the children?  This is key for joint custody to work, and it is one of the factors listed in the Alabama Code that the court must consider when awarding joint custody.  


6. Temporary Custody: A Temporary Solution for Families 

Temporary Custody is typically only awarded in a divorce when there is an emergent or urgent situation affecting the well-being of the minor children, as most parties end up living together while their divorce is pending. 

If there is a major emergency, such as severe domestic violence or other danger to the child, a court can even award temporary custody on an ex parte basis, which means without giving advanced notice to the other party. 

When temporary custody is at issue, a court will often appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to interview the parents and children and make assessments about whether such an order is warranted or whether a temporary hearing is necessary.  

Temporary custody is just temporary, however, and is ordered without prejudice to either party pending a final order.


7. Third-Party Custody: When Someone Else Steps In 

Sometimes, neither parent is fit to have custody of their children due to drugs, alcohol, abuse or other issues.  When that happens, the Court is required to give custody to someone other than the parents to protect the best interests of the children. 

In a divorce, a non-parent can intervene in the parents’ divorce case to ask for custody.  If the parents were never married or there is no divorce pending, then the non-parent can file a dependency petition in juvenile court.

Typically, courts prefer that the children be placed with a relative such as a grandparent, aunt, or uncle.  If there are no appropriate relatives, then the court may have to award custody of the children to the Department of Human Resources.


8. Split Custody: Dividing Custody between Siblings

Perhaps the most unusual custody arrangement is split custody where some of the children live primarily with one parent and some of the children live primarily with the other parent.  This arrangement is disfavored under Alabama law and is used only under exceptional circumstances.  


Author: Alison Herlihy

Family law attorney Alison Herlihy is a native of Mobile, Alabama. Alison has engaged in the private practice of family law since 2005, focusing primarily on domestic relations, divorce and child support, child custody law, adoption law, juvenile, probate practice, and wills.

Alison Baxter Herlihy earned the prestigious AV Preeminent peer review rating from Martindale-Hubbell, which recognizes attorneys for the highest levels of legal ability and professional ethical standards. Alison is a certified Guardian Ad Litem. In 2015, Alison became a Registered Mediator on the Alabama State Court Mediator Roster, in both general and domestic relations mediation.