If you divorce with small children deciding custody will be one of the issues you deal with during the divorce process. The main types of custody are Legal, Physical and Joint or, a variation on one or the other.
Custody, in most cases is decided between parents with no input from the courts. There are, however special situations, those in which parents can't come to an agreement. When this happens a "custody battle" ensues and it is up to the court to make a decision about how custody is split between the parents.
When a parent has legal custody, that parent has the right to make any decisions regarding the needs of the child. The parent can make all decisions about education, health care and religion with consultation of the other parent. In most states, the courts will award joint legal custody so that both parents can retain their legal rights as far as any decisions made about or for their child.
Physical custody means that the child lives with one parent with only visitation with the other parent. If the child spends an equal amount time with both parents then the state might award joint physical custody giving parents equal amounts of time with the child.
In this case, the parent will have either sole legal custody or sole physical custody or both. Unless it is proven that a parent is unfit, there is a trend in the Family Courts to award custody in a manner that will give the non-custodial parent an opportunity to play a larger role in their child’s life. It is very rare in today’s society for a court to award sole legal custody.
Even when the court orders sole physical custody, the non-custodial parent is able to enjoy ample visitation. In sole physical custody, both parents share equally in any decisions made regarding the child’s needs.
Joint custody means that custody of the child is awarded to both parents. It is the same as sole custody and can be awarded as joint legal custody or joint physical custody or both.
Custody issues are confusing because the laws and the language used vary from state to state. The way the final decree reads regarding custody and individual state laws determine the meaning of the wording in your divorce decree. The Cornell Law School web site is a great start when researching state laws concerning child custody and other divorce laws by state. I would encourage any parent going through a divorce to research your state laws pertaining to custody for a better understanding of what to expect.