Having custody means making important decisions for a child, and spending time with them. The term "custody" is no longer used in the law. The new term is "parental responsibilities." The term "custody" is used here because it is still a common term.
The court usually decides who gets custody when married parents get a divorce. If the parents were never married, custody is decided when:
- The court needs to decide if a person is a legal parent of a child (this is called parentage); or
- One of the parents asks for child support or time with the child.
When a child is with a parent, that parent is in charge of day-to-day care for the child. This includes:
- Feeding the child
- Getting the child up and off to school
- Taking care of the child when the child is sick
- Making sure the child is clean and dressed
- Getting the child to activities
- Playing with the child
- Getting the child to medical appointments
- Punishing the child, if necessary
- Making sure the child does chores
- Arranging for someone to watch the child
What does custody include?
Custody includes both of the following:
One type of parental responsibility is the power to make decisions about how to raise a child. Judges and lawyers call this "significant decision-making responsibility." This includes the areas of education, healthcare, after-school activities, and religion.
The judge can give one or both parents the power to make decisions.
If both parents have this power, they have to talk to each other before making decisions about the child. This is what used to be called "joint custody."
If the judge gives just one parent the power to make decisions, that parent doesn't have to ask the other parent before making decisions. This is what used to be called "sole custody."
Parenting time is the time a child spends with a parent. The judge usually gives both parents some parenting time, but time is not always equal.
Usually, the child lives mostly with one parent and has regular contact with the other parent (this used to be called "visitation").
Who can get custody of a child?
Usually, only the child's parents can ask for custody. If you are unsure whether you are a child's legal parent, see our article on Establishing parentage by going to court.
Someone who is not a parent of a child may ask for custody in special cases, like when the parent leaves the child in someone else's care for good.
If a stepparent wants to ask for custody, they must prove:
- The parent with more parenting time has died or is unable to care for the child, and the stepparent is already caring for the child;
- The child wants to live with the stepparent; and
- It is in the best interests of the child to live with the stepparent.
If a person is not a parent or stepparent and wants to spend time with a child, this is called visitation. This could be a grandparent, aunt, or close friend.
Updated: July 2017