What Is a Custodial Parent?

Learn about what it means to be a “custodial parent” and how you become one.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
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Child custody terminology can be confusing, especially if it's your first time dealing with the legal system. But whether you're in the midst of a divorce or just beginning a custody case with your ex, learning basic child custody principles, including what it means to be a "custodial parent," will help you understand the process.

Definition of "Custodial Parent"

A custodial parent (also called a "residential parent" in some states) is a mother or father who, by order of the court:

  • has either sole or primary physical custody of a child, and
  • is the parent the child spends most of the time with.

The custodial parent typically provides the child's primary home and cares for their daily physical and emotional needs.

When a court gives sole physical or primary custody to a mom or dad, the law considers that parent to be the child's custodial parent. The system also considers a mom or dad to be the custodial parent if the child's other parent is absent.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) lets the custodial parent claim the child on annual tax returns. The non-custodial parent can't claim the child on annual tax returns unless a court order states otherwise.

Joint Custody: Who's the Custodial Parent?

When parents are awarded joint custody, the court might designate one parent as the child's "primary" or "custodial" parent. Usually, this is the parent the child lives with most of the time. However, titles such as these don't carry as much weight in joint custody cases, because both parents must work together to raise the child.

Most joint custody orders specify which parent can claim the child as a dependent for tax purposes. When a joint custody order doesn't address the topic, though, both parents should carefully review the IRS's rules before claiming the child for tax purposes.

What's the Difference Between Physical and Legal Custody?

The parent with physical custody is the parent with whom the child will spend the most time. The parent with physical custody is responsible for meeting the child's daily needs.

A parent with legal custody has the right to have a say in deciding significant issues that impact the child's well-being.

Both physical and legal custody can be granted to both parents (creating a joint custody situation), or to one of the parents alone ("sole" custody).

  • Joint physical custody means that both parents will see the child regularly.
  • Sole physical custody means that one parent is the custodial parent and that the child will live with that parent most of the time.
  • Joint legal custody means that the parents must agree on how to handle significant issues that impact the child's well-being. Common joint legal custody issues include major medical decisions, religious training, and education. In many states, when parents share legal custody, the custodial parent can't move out of the area with the child without the other parent's permission. When parents disagree about a significant matter or a potential move, they must ask the court to decide the issue.
  • Sole legal custody means that one parent has the authority to make all the decisions regarding the child and doesn't have to consult with the other parent. In most cases, parents with sole custody do not need to get permission to relocate with the child, unless the move would interfere with a visitation.

What Are the Custodial Parent's Responsibilities?

Everyday responsibilities for custodial parents include:

  • making sure the child attends school, medical appointments, and religious education (if applicable)
  • helping with homework and school projects
  • providing transportation to and from extra-curricular activities
  • making sure the child has appropriate daily hygiene
  • facilitating court-ordered visitation between the child and non-custodial parent
  • providing clothing, food, and shelter, and
  • giving the child any other necessities.

How Do I Become the Custodial Parent?

The procedures for becoming the custodial parent depend on your relationship with the other parent. If you're filing for divorce from your child's other parent and haven't worked out a parenting agreement, you have to ask the court for a custody hearing. If you're not married and you can't agree on custody, you'll need to submit a formal request ("petition") for child custody. In both situations, you must ask the court for sole or primary physical custody to become the child's custodial parent.

If you and the child's other parent can work together, you have the option of negotiating the terms of your custody arrangement—including whether one of you will be the custodial parent—without a court fight. If you and the other parent do agree to a custody arrangement, you'll need to put your agreement in writing and submit it to the court for the judge's approval. Judges give a lot of weight to parents' proposed custody agreements, but always review them to ensure that the arrangement appears to be in the child's best interests.

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