One of the hardest things to resolve during a divorce is child custody. Many couples find it hard to agree on the majority of issues when separating, and deciding who will get legal custody or physical custody of the children is no exception. When the parents cannot reach an agreement among themselves, the court becomes the one who makes the final decision. If the parents do agree on a custody arrangement, a court will generally accept it as long as it is not against the child's best interests.
There are several different kinds of custody decisions to be made and various possible custody arrangements. In some cases, a court may grant sole custody to one parent. This means that the custody is not shared with the other parent. In other cases, the court will declare that the parents are to share custody. This is referred to as joint custody. Because joint custody requires cooperation between the parents, the court usually requires parents to agree to and submit to a written parenting plan.
The two main types of custody are physical custody and legal custody. Legal custody refers to the parent who has the legal right to make decisions relating to the child. These decisions may include decisions related to schooling, healthcare, extracurricular activities, etc. The parent that the child lives with has physical custody.
There are many different ways a court can grant custody. For example, a parent may have sole legal custody but share joint physical custody. Alternatively, parents may share joint legal custody but not joint physical custody. Joint physical custody does not mean that a child will split his or her time with each parent exactly down the middle each week. What it does mean, however, is that each parent will have equal time and equal contact with the child. For parents who are not granted physical custody, this does not mean that they will not have time or contact with the child. Instead, parents without custody rights have parenting time rights, which entitle the parent to frequent and continuing contact with the child.
Source: Arizona Supreme Court, "Planning for Parenting Time: Arizona's Guide for Parents Living Apart," accessed on Nov. 2, 2014