Child custody refers to custodial awards or determinations involving a minor child. Those determinations involve which spouse has the right to make decisions about the child. In Louisiana, decisions about education, religion, medical issues, and discipline fall under the legal custody category. Determinations of where the child will live fall under the category of physical custody. Sole custody grants legal and physical custody of the child to one parent. In a joint custody arrangement, both spouses share legal and/or physical custody of the child. If two spouses cannot agree on a child custody arrangement, the court likely will award custody based on the best interests of the child. All child custody information is confidential.
There are four main types of child custody:
- Joint custody, also known as joint child custody, joint legal custody, or joint physical custody
- Sole or full custody
- Split custody
- Non-parental custody or third-party custody
Joint custody has become a preferred custody arrangement over the last 20 years or so. Louisiana courts usually award child custody based upon the child's best interests. If the parents cannot agree on custody, the court usually will grant either sole custody to one parent or joint custody to both parents. Generally, Louisiana courts award joint custody to both parents and designate one as the primary custodian. The other parent usually receives reasonable rights to visit the child, such as on every other weekend, holidays, and several weeks in the summer. It is not unusual for the parents to operate as joint custodians, even though one parent has been awarded sole custody, in order to provide the best situation for the child. Terms of joint custody can vary from case to case, but the common elements are that joint custodians share legal responsibility for the child's care. Joint custody arrangements can take many forms, and parents in a joint custody arrangement must consider multiple factors, including the parents' ability to cooperate, physical limitations, expenses, and the child's preferences and needs.
Sole or Full Custody
Sole or full custody is the traditional form of custody familiar to many people. In that case, one parent is designated as the custodial parent with the legal responsibility for, and physical care and control of, the child. The non-custodial parent often has visitation rights involving a limited right to visit the child. Mothers most often were awarded sole custody in disputed custody cases as recently as the 1980s. Now, fathers often are awarded sole custody, depending on which parent is able to meet the child's best interests. The custodial parent has the ultimate authority to make decisions regarding the child, including sensitive areas such as religious upbringing and surname changes.
Non-parental or Third Party Custody
An award of custody to a non-parent or a third party also is possible in cases of divorce, the death of a parent where the surviving parent is unfit, or when a child has been living with the third party for an extended period. Likely third parties who seek custody are grandparents, aunts, uncles, stepparents, and partners in same-sex relationships. In challenging a parent's custody, a non-parental party has the burden of showing that the child's best interests will not be served by granting custody to a parent.
In split custody, one parent receives custody of one or more of the parents' children, and the other parent receives custody of the couples' remaining children. This is the least common type of custody arrangement. Split custody usually is awarded only in exceptional situations because the courts are reluctant to separate siblings, including half-blood siblings and stepsiblings, based on the presumptions that children benefit from an upbringing with their siblings and that separation would add trauma to the divorce situation. In making a split custody award, a court may consider the children's and parents' preferences, age disparities among the children, special needs, disciplinary issues, and a child's integration in a particular household.