Types of Custody: Full, Sole, Primary, Joint & More

There are many different types of custody. The terminology varies by state, which can make researching custody arrangements difficult. However, many terms are common across states.

You might also hear the word custody in reference to the police taking someone into custody but that's different. Here, we're discussing child custody.

It's essential that you know the different types of custody before going to court. With this information, you can prepare a court-ready proposal or agreement that suits the best interests of your child.

Bring calm to co‑parenting. Agree on a schedule and plan. Be prepared with everything documented.

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Legal custody versus physical custody

Legal custody is the right and responsibility to make decisions about the child's schooling, medical care, religion, etc. There are two types of legal custody.

Physical custody defines where the child lives. There are two types of physical custody as well.

You could have one type of legal custody yet another type of physical custody. For example, parents could have joint legal custody even if one parent has sole physical custody.

Sole custody versus joint custody

When people refer to sole custody, they usually mean that one parent (the custodial parent) has all or the majority of parenting time, plus all the parental rights and responsibilities. It is typically only awarded when one parent is unfit.

Fighting for sole custody isn't always the best idea. You should only consider it if it's dangerous for your child to be around the other parent.

When you hear joint custody casually, it typically means the child splits their time between both parent's homes and both parents have decision-making power. While it's considered the best arrangement for a child's emotional health in most cases, there are pros and cons to joint custody.

Full custody

Full custody is a term often used interchangeably with sole custody, although the latter is the more legally acceptable term. Both give one parent all or the majority of parenting time and all the legal custody.

Primary custody

Primary custody gives one parent the vast majority of parenting time. The noncustodial parent gets some visitation time. In states that use this term, like Tennessee, the parent whom the child mostly lives with is often called the primary residential custodian or parent.

Split custody

Split custody allows parents with multiple children to each provide the primary residence for at least one child. For example, one parent could have sole (or primary) physical custody of Anna and Sebastian, and the other might have sole (or primary) physical custody of Esther.

This is the rarest type of custody, as a court is more likely to award joint custody to parents that are both fit to care for their children.

Designating a type of custody in your parenting plan

Designating custody in your parenting plan is easy if you use the Custody X Change app.

Click the "parenting plan" tab. More than 25 categories of parenting provisions will appear.

Click the custody categories, and select the type of custody you want to assign.

Now you're on your way to a professional-quality document for managing custody of your child.

Bring calm to co‑parenting. Agree on a schedule and plan. Be prepared with everything documented.

Make My Schedule and Plan Now

Bring calm to co‑parenting. Agree on a schedule and plan. Be prepared with everything documented.

Make My Plan


50/50, 60/40, 70/30, 80/20

Long distance schedules

Third party schedules


Summer break

Parenting provisions


How to make a schedule

Factors to consider

Parenting plans:

Making a parenting plan

Changing your plan

Interstate, long distance

Temporary plans

Guides by location:

Parenting plans

Scheduling guidelines

Child support calculators

Age guidelines:

Birth to 18 months

18 months to 3 years

3 to 5 years

5 to 13 years

13 to 18 years


Joint physical custody

Sole physical custody

Joint legal custody

Sole legal custody

Product features:

Software overview

Printable calendars

Parenting plan templates

Journal what happens

Expense sharing

Parenting time tracking

Calculate time & overnights

Ways to use:

Succeed by negotiating

Prepare for mediation

Get ready for court


Custody X Change is software that creates professional parenting plans and parenting time schedules.

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