When parents divorce, the divorce decree will specify with whom the divorcing couple's children will live (and circumstances under which the other parent will visit with the children). Often, parents work out these arrangements between themselves, either completely voluntarily or with the assistance of their attorneys or a mediator. When they are unable to reach a decision, however, or when unmarried parents are unable to agree on who will have custody of their child, the court will make a decision based on the child's best interests.
In a marriage dissolution case involving children or a case involving child custody, the Court must determine ”legal custody” of the children. “Legal custody” establishes which parent has the authority to make major life decisions for the child. The Court may order “joint legal custody”, in which case the parents share custody and neither parent’s rights are superior. Alternatively, the Court may order “sole legal custody”, which means that one parent has “legal custody”.
In addition to determining “legal custody”, the Court will also determine “parenting time.” Parenting time means the condition under which a parent has the right to have child physically placed with the parent and the right and responsibility to make, during that placement, routine daily decisions regarding the child’s care consistent with the major decisions made by a person having “legal custody”. The parent who has the child with them the majority of the time is known as the “primary physical custodian.” If the Court orders the parties to share equal parenting time with the child, then it are known as “joint physical custody.” If each parent has the child in their primary physical custody, it is known as “split custody.”
In awarding custody, the Court is required to consider all relevant factors. The overriding consideration, however, is always the best interest of the child.