When couples reach an agreement to separate or divorce, one of the most challenging aspects is determining child custody arrangements.

Parents must understand the types of formal child custody arrangements available to make informed decisions that prioritize the well-being of their children.

This post explores the different types of child custody arrangements, highlighting their features and implications to help separating couples navigate this sensitive process.

Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody

Legal custody essentially refers to the right to make crucial decisions about the child’s upbringing, such as education, healthcare, and religious upbringing. It gives a parent the authority to make decisions on behalf of the child. Joint legal custody applies where both parents share the decision-making responsibilities, while sole legal custody accords one parent with the exclusive right to make these decisions.

Physical custody, on the other hand, refers to where the child lives on a day-to-day basis. In joint physical custody, the child spends most of the time with both parents, often splitting time evenly between households. On the other hand, sole physical custody implies that the child lives or resides primarily with one parent, and the other parent is given visitation rights.

Sole Custody

Sole custody is when one parent is entrusted with both the legal and physical custody of the child. In this arrangement, the child lives with one parent, and that parent is responsible for making all decisions regarding the child’s upbringing. Sole custody is typically granted in cases where one parent is declared unfit or unable to care for the child.

An accurate and verified report from the U.S. Census Bureau states that, in 2019, around 13.4 million parents had custody of children under 21 years old while the other parent lived elsewhere. Of these custodial parents, 74.8% were mothers, and 25.2% were fathers. This statistic indicates that sole custody arrangements are more common, with one parent assuming primary responsibility for the child’s care.

Joint Custody

Joint custody happens when both parents share legal and physical custody of the child. In joint legal custody, both parents are accorded the mandate to have the right to make decisions about the child’s upbringing. In joint physical custody, the child in question splits their time between both parents’ homes. Joint custody arrangements require a high level of cooperation between the parents. According to recent studies, joint custody arrangements have been on the rise, reflecting a shift towards shared parenting responsibilities.

Bird’s Nest Custody, Split Custody, and Third-Party Custody

Bird’s nest custody is a unique arrangement in which the child remains in the family home and the parents take turns living there with the child. This arrangement allows the child to remain in a stable environment while the parents rotate in and out. Bird’s nest custody can be challenging to maintain but can be beneficial for the child’s well-being.

Split custody is when there are two or more children and each parent has primary custody of at least one child. This arrangement is less common and can be emotionally tormenting for both the parents and the children, as it separates siblings.

Third-party custody is awarded to someone other than the child’s biological parents, such as a grandparent or other relative. This arrangement is typically only awarded if both parents are found unfit or unable to care for the child.

Factors Affecting Custody Arrangements

Several factors can affect the type of custody arrangement that is awarded, including the child’s age and preferences, the parent’s ability to cooperate, the child’s relationship with each parent, and any experience of abuse or neglect. Courts typically put the best interests of the child in mind when determining custody arrangements.

Creating a Parenting Plan

When determining custody arrangements, parents must create a parenting agreement that outlines the details of the child custody arrangement, including visitation schedules, holiday schedules, and decision-making processes. A well-thought-out parenting plan can help reduce conflicts and provide clarity for both parents and children.


Understanding the different types of child custody arrangements available can help separating couples make informed decisions that prioritize the affairs of their children. By considering their children’s needs and working together cooperatively, parents can create a custody arrangement that works best for their family.