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Custody terms you should know

When parents divorce, likely the most important decision they will make is how to divide custody of their children. You may have some idea of how you want to do this. If you're fortunate, you and your spouse see eye-to-eye on the matter. However, it's essential to know what the law says and what your options are.

The first thing to understand is the difference between physical and legal custody. Physical custody refers to where the children live and who is taking care of them. Legal custody refers to who has decision-making rights regarding matters that involve the children's welfare, education and health.

Many parents have some type of joint physical and legal custody. That doesn't necessarily mean that the kids split their time precisely evenly between their parents' homes. However, it involves an agreement that both parents will have regular time with the kids and share in making important decisions that impact them.

If one parent is deemed not able to responsibly care for the children or doesn't want to, the other parent may be granted sole physical and legal custody. The noncustodial parent may still be given visitation rights.

An interesting variation that some parents opt for, at least for a time, is called "bird's nest" custody. The kids stay put in their home while the parents take turns living there with them. This can minimize upheaval for the kids by letting them stay in the family home and school and keep their friends Obviously, however, it requires that the parents have another place to live.

There are some other options, but experts generally don't recommend them. Split custody is when one person takes one or more of the kids and the other(s) stay with the other parent. It's considered a last resort because it tears apart the sibling bond just when kids need it most.

Some parents choose serial custody. That's when one parent has physical and legal custody of a child for a number of years and then the other one assumes this custody. The problem, experts say, is that children usually do best when they're able to maintain a relationship with both parents throughout all stages of growing up.

Every family situation is different, so it's best when parents can work together, with the guidance of their attorneys, to find a custody arrangement that's in the best interests of their children.

Source: The Good Men Project, "Child Custody 101," Jan. 30, 2018

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