Child Custody Rights & Arrangements Explained


Child custody is a legal term that describes who is responsible for a child after divorce, annulment, separation, or adoption. Following the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, words like ‘custody’ aren’t really used anymore because of their associations with ownership. Instead, words like ‘residency’ or ‘child arrangements’ are more commonly used.

The UK family court process puts a big emphasis on what's best for the children when it comes to child arrangements and custody agreements. That is why they prefer families to pursue other avenues other than going to court, such as family mediation, to help both parties come to a mutual agreement that's in a child's best interest.

Commonly, parents choose to opt for joint custody (or residency). Joint residency means the child spends equal time with each parent and each parent has equal say in decisions that affect the child.

Sometimes, however, parents or guardians can’t agree on where their child lives, or who should be responsible for decisions about their care. In these situations, a parent or guardian can apply for a Child Arrangement Order, where the court's make a decision with the children's best interests and other factors in mind.

Child Custody Types

There are four different types of child custody arrangements:

  • Physical Custody

  • Legal Custody

  • Full Custody

  • Joint Custody

Physical Custody (Residency)

Physical custody (more commonly known as residency now) is where a child lives for the majority of the time. Child arrangement orders will decide who a child lives with.

Sole residency or sole physical custody means a child will live with one parent only. This does not mean that the child is not allowed to see the other parent or guardian. Nor does it mean that one parent has no say in decisions made regarding the child's welfare or needs.

Joint residency means the child spends equal time living with both parents/guardians.

When the court makes a decision on physical custody (residency) they will consider a number of factors, one of the biggest being how the arrangements will impact the child’s life. Generally it is thought that joint residency is more disruptive, as it means the child has to constantly move between two different homes. However, the benefit of joint residency is they get to spend equal amounts of time with both parents.

Legal custody is about the decisions that are made about the child’s life, like where they will go to school, consent for medical procedures and religious upbringing. Legal agreements about children are made separately from residency agreements, so both parents can be involved in making important decisions like these, even if they don’t live together.

Joint legal custody means both parents make important decisions together. If parents can’t agree, the court can grant specific issue orders that cover these kinds of decisions and ensure they are made in the best interest of the child.

Sole legal custody means that only one parent is legally responsible for making important decisions in a child’s life.

Full Custody

Full custody is granted to a parent when they have both physical and legal custody of a child. This is quite rare, and only really happens when there is a history of abuse and neglect by the other parent or the court deems them to be unfit to live with and make decisions relating to the child.

Joint Custody

Joint custody means arrangements for the child, including residency and decisions made about them, are equal for both parents. In these arrangements, the child will split their time between living with both parents and both parents will have equal say in decisions about medicine, education, religion, who the child has contact with, and other important issues.

Shared custody is when children spend nearly equal amounts of time with both parents. This type of arrangement aims to provide a balanced upbringing between both homes. The benefit of shared custody is that children maintain strong relationships with both parents. That being said, for shared custody to work well, there needs to be good communication and cooperation between parents.

Who makes decisions about child custody?

Custody disputes involve individuals with parental responsibility who are unable to agree on what arrangements should be made with regards to children. Most commonly, these disputes involve parents, however, they can involve other guardians such as grandparents, too.

Child Custody & The Children Act 1989

One of the most important laws when it comes to child custody in the UK is the Children Act 1989. This law puts children's welfare at the heart of any decision-making process related to their upbringing. It outlines the factors the court considers to ensure the best interests of the child are met.

Court considerations in custody arrangements

The court uses a child welfare checklist to decide on custody arrangements. This checklist includes things like:

  • The child's wishes and feelings, taking into account their age and understanding.

  • The child's physical, emotional, and educational needs.

  • The likely effect of any changes in their circumstances.

The court also values both parents' involvement in their child's life. Unless there are strong reasons not to, the law encourages maintaining a relationship with both parents. This is because children benefit from having meaningful connections with both mum and dad.

The court looks at parenting skills, emotional support, and how well you communicate and cooperate with the other parent. It also takes into account each parent's historical involvement in the child's life, such as who has been the primary caregiver and how active has each parent been in the child's upbringing.

If there's a history of abuse, neglect, or domestic violence, the court will prioritise your child's safety above all else.

Child-centric custody arrangements

When it comes to child custody, your child's needs should always be the top priority. Creating child-centric arrangements ensures that your child's well-being and happiness are at the forefront.

Child-centric arrangements mean tailoring your custody plan to what's best for your child. It's not about what's easiest for the parents, but what will provide stability, love, and support for your child's growth.

Child Custody Frequently Asked Questions

As you continue your journey to understand child custody matters, it's natural to have questions. In this section, we'll address some common concerns and misconceptions to provide clarity and help you make informed decisions for your child's future.

Can I Decide My Child's Custody Arrangement?

You and the other parent can agree on a custody arrangement, but it's recommended to have it legally documented, like in a consent order. If you can't agree, the court steps in to decide based on the child's best interests.

Will the Court Favour One Parent Over the Other?

The court's primary concern is your child's well-being. They don't automatically favor one parent over the other. Instead, they assess factors like stability, involvement, and the child's wishes.

What if I Want to Change the Custody Arrangement Later?

Life circumstances can change. If you need to modify the custody arrangement, you can seek a court-approved variation. This can happen if there's a significant change in your child's needs or your situation.

How Can I Make the Custody Process Less Stressful for My Child?

Keep communication open, honest, and child-focused. Avoid involving your child in adult disagreements. Emphasise that the arrangement is about ensuring their happiness and well-being. At certain points of the process there are opportunities to pursue alternative forms of dispute resolution, which can be less stressful for everyone. Before you make an application to the court for a child arrangement order, you will have to attend a MIAM (unless exempt) where you will learn about mediation and the benefit of engaging with it to solve your child custody dispute.

Understanding child custody and making decisions with your child's best interests is a journey that requires knowledge, patience, and determination. By focusing on your child's needs and staying informed about the legal framework, you're better equipped to make choices that will shape their future.

Remember that you're not alone on this journey. It's crucial to have professional guidance. Lawhive connects you with qualified solicitors who specialise in family law, making the legal process smoother and more understandable. For more information about how we can help, tell us about your case and get a fixed-fee quote for the best course of action relating to your situation.

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