Types of Custody and Visitation

Mother rubbing noses with her son
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If you're newly single, you may not have given much thought to different types of custody until now. But when you're planning a divorce or putting the pieces back together after a breakup, the options available to you become extremely important.

It's tempting to seek sole physical custody just because you believe you deserve it or, to put it more plainly, because you don't deserve whatever your ex may have done to hurt your family. However, as you explore the types of custody and visitation available to you, remember that the most important consideration is what's best for your kids.

To fully understand the types of child custody and visitation available to you, you'll need to become familiar with the terminology used by legal experts. In particular, you need to understand the distinction between legal custody and physical custody.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to the legal authority to make major decisions on behalf of your child. Examples of major decisions include where your child will go to school, what type of religious upbringing they will have (if any), and non-emergency medical decisions. Legal custody options include:

  • Sole legal custody: The parent who has sole legal custody is the only person who has the legal authority to make major decisions on behalf of the child. These include decisions regarding education, religion, and healthcare.
  • Joint legal custody: Joint legal custody means that both parents have the legal authority to make major decisions for the child. It should be noted that parents can potentially share joint legal custody without having joint physical custody.

Physical Custody

Physical custody refers to where the children live the majority of the time. This is sometimes referred to as "residential custody." Types of physical custody include:

  • Sole physical custody: With sole physical custody, the child physically resides at one location. In most cases, the non-custodial parent is awarded visitation rights, including sleepovers.
  • Joint physical custody: This form of child custody is also called "shared custody," "shared parenting," or "dual residence." In this situation, the children live with one parent for part of the time, and live with the other parent during the remaining time. The division of time spent at each location is approximately equal.
  • Bird's nest custody: In these cases, children live in one central location, and the parents rotate in and out on a regular schedule. For example, one parent resides at the children's home Monday evening through Thursday, and the other is there from Thursday evening through Monday. This child-centered approach can ease transitions for kids, but it can be costly to maintain three separate residences.


Parent-child visitation allows parents who do not have physical custody to see their children on a regular basis. Types of visitation include:

  • Unsupervised visitation: This is the most common type of visitation, in which parents are generally permitted to take their children to their own homes or on an outing during their scheduled visitation. Occasionally, limitations are specified in advance. For example, if a mother is breastfeeding, the non-custodial parent may be asked to visit the child at the mother's home until the baby is able to take a bottle.
  • Supervised visitation: In some cases, the courts will order supervised visitation, which means that another responsible adult must be present for the visit. The courts may allow the non-custodial parent to select an individual, such as a grandparent or family friend, to serve as the supervisor. In other cases, an appointed social worker or court-ordered designee can supervise interactions.
  • Virtual visitation: Virtual visitation typically takes place using video-conferencing technology. While not ideal as the only mode of visitation, virtual visits can provide a sense of continuity when parents and children live far apart or in-person visits are infrequent.

By Jennifer Wolf
Jennifer Wolf is a PCI Certified Parent Coach and a strong advocate for single moms and dads.