In cases involving children, the Court must, either by agreement or by trial, set up some sort of custodial arrangement for the kids involved. There are many options available, all of which fit under a just a few legally recognized categories. There are as many if not more “definitions” of custody floating around out there that don’t actually mean anything legally. People usually have at least some idea of what it is that they are seeking in their minds, but they have trouble defining it. So here we go with a little Child Custody 101 to assist those with their initial case preparation:

Legal Custody. This is one of the two types of custody that must be determined by a Missouri Court in all cases. The legal aspect of custody means decision making and parental authority, basically. It means having the legal right to make (and participate in) any material decisions affecting the children.  Included are the choice or change of school, college, camp, or comparable summer activity, special tutoring, music, sports, art, dance, and other cultural lessons, psychological or psychiatric treatment or counseling, doctors, and surgeons; notice of illness and injury; access to school and medical records; and all other material decisions affecting the health, education, and welfare of the children. Specifically, decisions regarding educational instruction, religious instruction, health care, discipline, and child care providers are included in the model parenting plan, but anything relevant to the children could be included in the definition. Legal custody can be granted to one or both parents, but the overwhelming preference is for joint legal custody. 

Physical Custody. This is the second aspect of custody that must also be determined. Physical custody simply means the right to have actual physical possession of the children at a certain specified time. The preference is for joint physical custody, which only means that both parents have the right to physical possession of the children at certain times. The actual schedule can vary greatly, however, and this is where tailoring to the specific needs of the family is important. Joint physical custody could be an alternate weekend schedule, alternate weeks, holidays and spring break only, summertime only, 3 day/4 day, 5 day/2 day, 50/50, open ended, or whatever other schedule is appropriate for the case. Just as a note, in a 50/50 joint physical parenting schedule, reduced child support is still usually paid in some form or another.

Joint Custody. As discussed above, this is the preferred arrangement and will usually be awarded unless a physical or emotional danger to the child is demonstrated. The Court has to determine whether joint custody is appropriate as to both the legal and physical aspects of custody.

Sole Custody. This is the alternative to joint custody where only one parent is granted either all of the decision making rights (sole legal custody) or all of the physical parenting time with the other parent  being excluded completely (sole physical custody), or both. Courts are reluctant to order either of these options unless it is shown to be in the children’s best interests, which usually means that physical or emotional danger to the children will occur under any other alternative. Also, as many times as I have seen it, there is no such thing as sole physical custody to one parent along with a parenting schedule for the other parent. If both parents are to see the children, whatever the schedule, that is joint physical custody by definition.

Split Custody.  This is an arrangement where the children are “split up” between the two parents, meaning that some of the children reside with one parent while the other children reside with the other parent. This is not too common, but it does happen. Courts are usually reluctant to split up children except in the most unique of circumstances, but the parents can agree to such an arrangement if they feel it is best.

Full Custody. There is no definition of Full Custody in Missouri and it has no legal significance.  When referring to this, people are talking about some combination of the above types of custody.

Primary Custody. This is no longer a legal definition in Missouri.   Now it is called “residential address for education and mailing purposes.” It usually means the home where the children reside for the greater amount of time, and the home that is in the children’s school district. The parents are supposed to be equal so they are no longer referred to as the primary parent and the lesser parent.

Visitation. This is the time where you view the body before a funeral.  So, if you are talking about your kids, call it something else, like “parenting time”.

Hopefully, this helps to clarify a little bit, but when it comes down to it, it is still just a bunch of words on paper. Put the children first, focus on what is best for them and what will really work with your family, and don’t get too wrapped up in the terminology.