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