Types of Child Custody in Alabama

Alabama domestic relations judges have broad discretion in granting custodial rights to parents who are involved in a divorce or child custody dispute. If you are going through a divorce or are involved in a child custody dispute, it is important that you understand the choices Alabama judge's have when making a child custody determination. In this article, I will clarify the types of child custody in Alabama and explain the differences between physical custody, legal custody, sole custody and joint custody arrangements.

Physical Custody

If a judge awards you physical custody of your child, that means that you now have the right to have the child live with you. Sometimes a judge will award both parents physical custody (i.e joint physical custody). If both parents are awarded physical custody of the child, then it means that the child will spend significant or equal amounts of time with both parents. This arrangement works well in situations where both parents are able to get along (despite their differences) and they live relatively nearby.

In situations where the child lives primarily with one parent and has visitation with the other, generally the parent with whom the child primarily lives (called the "custodial" parent) will have sole or primary physical custody, and the other parent (the noncustodial parent) will have the right to visitation or parenting time with his or her child. In such situations, the visitation or parenting time with the noncustodial parent is significantly less than had the judge awarded joint physical custody.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to the right to make important parenting decisions regarding the child's upbringing, including, but not limited to, the education of the child, health care and religious training. Alabama domestic relations courts frequently award legal custody to both parents (i.e. joint legal custody), whereby both parents are required to consult with one another regarding major parenting decisions. Under a joint legal custody arrangement, the failure by a parent to consult the other can result in the on-consulting parent being sanctioned by the court.

Sole Custody

A parent may have sole physical custody of a child, sole legal custody, or both sole legal and physical custody. As indicated above, sole legal custody means that one parent has sole rights and responsibilities to make major parenting decisions concerning the child. Likewise, if you have sole physical custody, it means the child primarily lives with you and the other parent has rights of visitation (unless otherwise ordered by the court).

Joint Custody

By now you have probably figured out that joint custody means that both parents have the right to make parenting decisions and/or both have the right to have the child live with them for significant periods of time. Joint custody arrangements typically require the parents to work out a parenting schedule that meets both their work schedule and the needs of the children. If the parents are unable to agree on a schedule, courts will impose one. A standard visitation schedule is one where the children spend the weekends with one parent and the work week with the other.

For more information regarding child custody and child custody awards, please see our series on How Child Custody is Determined in Alabama.