What is a custodial parent?

A custodial parent is a primary parent who has sole physical custody and shares a home and resides with the child for a majority of the time. This means that the court has given primary legal or physical custody to one of the parents, the parents came up to an agreement, or there is only one parent in the child's life. Learn more about custodial parents' rights below.

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jun 1, 2021

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A custodial parent is a parent who has either sole physical custody of the child or the parent with whom the child resides for a majority of the time.

Both parents can be custodial; courts often give two parents who are both fit parents joint custody of the child. However, the court may refer to the parent with the larger timeshare with the child as a custodial parent at times in court documents and during hearings. While the parent who has primary physical custody of the child may receive child support payments from the other parent, custody arrangements or parenting time of a minor child and child support are completely different matters in the eyes of the family law courts. A visitation schedule is not dependent on the payment of child support.

There are two types of custody, legal and physical custody. Legal custody gives one parent the right to make vital decisions regarding the child’s education, morality, religious training, discipline, and medical care. Physical custody refers to the actual physical care and control of the child.

Keep reading to find out what is a custodial parent in more detail. If you need further legal help, just enter your ZIP code below.

What is the custodial parent responsible for?

Custodial parent rights differ depending on whether the parent merely has physical custody of the child or whether the parent also has legal custody. If a custodial parent has sole physical custody and sole legal custody of the child, then they are entirely responsible for the care and raising of the child and are free to make decisions regarding the health and welfare of the child without concurrence or even consultation with the non-custodial parent. The parent with sole custody (both legal and physical) may make medical decisions, decisions about schools and education, and other similar decisions unless a court order in place or divorce decree provides specific instructions regarding the rights and responsibilities of the custodial and non-custodial parents. The custodial parent may not move away with the child. If the non-custodial parent has child visitation rights, the custodial parent must comply with the visitation orders and produce the child to the non-custodial parent for visitation as ordered. A typical scenario is that of a child visiting their father on weekends when the mother has sole custody.

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What are the custodial parent’s rights when legal custody is shared?

If the custodial parent has sole physical custody but joint legal custody with the other parent, the rights and responsibilities of the custodial parent are different. So, what is the difference between a custodial parent and a non-custodial parent?

While the custodial parent may control the daily care of the child and has physical custody and general control of the child on a daily basis, the noncustodial parent with joint legal custody has a right to participate in making major decisions about raising their child. For example, the noncustodial parent has a say in what school the child attends, may make medical decisions in concert with the other parent, and has a right to generally participate in making other similar major decisions on raising the child.

In other words, a parent with joint custody may contribute to the upbringing of the child even though the child may usually reside with the other parent who is the custodial parent. Parents with joint legal custody are expected to cooperate in the upbringing of the child regardless of whether one parent or the other has physical custody.

What about getting child custody?

Parents have a fundamental constitutional right to the care, custody, and control of their children. Whether parents are married or not, each parent has control and a say in the upbringing of the child. If parents divorce, matters such as child custody and how to become a custodial parent are an issue during the divorce and must either be negotiated by agreement of the parents or the court makes the determination as to which parent should have physical and legal custody of the child.

If the court makes the ultimate decision, it will be based on what it thinks is fair and serves the best interests of the child. At times, even non-parent custody may be granted to a person who might be better situated to care for children.

What is the “best interest of the child” standard is difficult to apply, but some factors that the court considers include which parent provided most of the child’s daily care, whether the child has a closer relationship with one or the other parent, whether one parent has more or less time to care for the child taking work responsibilities into consideration, and the child’s wishes (in some states) and other relevant factors. Some states list the factors that will be considered when deciding custody issues.

What is a custodial Parent vs. non-custodial parent?

In any divorce situation involving children, it is important to understand exactly what is the difference between a custodial parent and a noncustodial parent. As mentioned above, a custodial parent is the one with whom the child resides for the majority of the time and has sole physical custody. On the other hand, being a noncustodial parent is not a bad thing at all.

Plus, a noncustodial parent can be involved in a child’s life as much as the custodial parent and have similar responsibilities and rights for the child, depending on the custody determination. If one parent is given sole physical and legal custody for the care and raising of the child as well as decision-making, then the non-custodial parent is given visitation with their child.

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