Custodial Parent

Family law refers to a parent who has been awarded sole physical custody of a child, or with whom the child primarily lives. The custodial parent is primarily responsible for the day-to-day care of the child. Commonly, parents are assigned joint physical and legal custody, which means they legally share parental duties, but it is necessary for the court to specifically state, in any custody and visitation order, where the child will spend most of his time. To explore this concept, consider the following custodial parent definition.

Definition of Custodial Parent


  1. The parent responsible for, or providing protective supervision and guardianship of, a child.

Origin of Custodial

1765-1775        Latin custōdi

Custodial Parent Definition

In a divorce, the custodial parent is the parent with whom the couple’s child primarily resides, and who cares for and supervises the child on a daily bases. It is not necessary for the court to have awarded one parent sole physical custody to be considered a custodial parent, as even in the most common assignment of joint physical custody, the parent who has more time with the child is considered custodial.

Additionally, when a reference is made to the custodial parent, it most commonly refers to the parent with the most physical time with the child, and doesn’t refer to legal custody. In many cases, the court may refer to the custodial in a joint physical custody situation the “primary custodial parent.”

Custodial Parent Rights

Custodial parent rights vary slightly, depending on the circumstances, and specifics of the court’s order for custody. Typically, a primary custodial parent has the right to make decisions about the child’s day-to-day activities without consulting with the other parent. This allows the child’s life to run more smoothly. The custodial parent also has the authority to make everyday decisions about the child’s medical care, education, and other minor issues. If the parents share joint legal custody, the custodial parent is required to consult with the non-custodial parent regarding major issues in the child’s life.

Example of Primary Custodial Parent

Eight-year old Bobby’s parents have joint physical custody. According to the court order, Bobby lives with his mother during the week, and stays with his father on alternating weekends, the mother is considered the primary custodial parent.

Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody

Legal custody refers to the right and responsibility of one or both parents to make decisions about how their child is raised. This includes key issues of the child’s education, religious upbringing, extra-curricular activities, and medical care. Therefore, in Bobby’s case, physical custody refers to the fact that he lives with his mother, and visits his father on a regular schedule.

Further, Bobby’s parents have been assigned joint legal custody. This means that, while Bobby’s mother cares for him on a daily basis, and makes decisions about things every day, she must consult with Bobby’s father about something important that could have a lasting effect on Bobby’s life.

Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody

The legal terms “sole custody” and “joint custody” may be used to describe both physical and legal custody of a child. In the event one parent is awarded sole custody, whether legal or physical, that parent is given exclusive rights to care for the child in certain respects. For example, Lisa proves to the court that her husband, Bob, is emotionally abusive to their two small children. Lisa is awarded sole physical custody, and Bob is allowed to have only supervised visitation. In this case, the children will reside solely with their mother, and they will not be allowed to visit their father alone. This ruling refers only to the physical custody of the children

As another example, Nathan and Stephanie have joint legal and physical custody of their daughter. Stephanie begins making erratic decisions on her own, such as removing their daughter from her private school to be home schooled, and refusing to allow her to complete her vaccination schedule. Because, under joint legal custody, the parents are required to confer and reach such important decisions together, the court takes Nathan’s request for a modification seriously, and awards Nathan sole legal custody. From that point forward, only Nathan is legally authorized to make important decisions regarding the child’s life.

Non-Custodial Parent

The legal term non-custodial parent refers to the parent that does not have primary physical custody of the child. The non-custodial parent has the right to enjoy time with his or her child, and to take part in the child’s upbringing, unless prohibited by the court. In rare cases, the non-custodial parent may be required to have supervision when visiting with the child, or may be denied visitation altogether, if the court deems that parent unfit to care for the child, even for brief periods of time.

Child Custody Order

When parents separate, the issue of where the children will live becomes an issue. Many parents are able to work this important issue out between them, coming up with a schedule of visitation that works for everyone. In some cases, however, parents cannot reach an agreement, or even become extremely hostile, making it necessary for the court to get involved.

The court will determine what is in the best interests of the children, making a child custody order that takes care of the children’s needs, rather than the parents’ interests. In making a child custody order, the judge may look at the mental health of the parents, the wishes of the children, and the relationship the children have with each parent. The court’s child custody order will address the issues of child visitation with the non-custodial parent, legal custody, and child support.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Authority – The right or power to make decisions, to give orders, or to control something or someone.
  • Custody – The protective care of something, or someone.
  • Divorce – The legal termination of a marriage.
  • JurisdictionThe legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.