Child custody is a term used in family law courts to define legal guardianship of a child under the age of 18. During divorce or marriage annulment proceedings, the issue of child custody often becomes a matter for the court to determine. In most cases, both parents continue to share legal child custody but one parent gains physical custody. Family law courts generally base decisions on the best interests of the child or children, not always on the best arguments of each parent.
Child custody laws are almost always created and enforced by individual states, not the federal government. This means a family court judge in Georgia may use a different standard for evaluating the fitness of a parent than a judge in Massachusetts. Most states also allow for independent legal representation for the minor(s) involved in a custody hearing. Petitions for child custody can also be entered by grandparents, great-grandparents or non-relatives who have acted in the capacity of parent to the child involved.
In general, courts tend to award physical custody to the parent who demonstrates the most financial security, adequate parenting skills and the least disruption for the child. Both parents continue to share legal custody until the minor has reached the age of 18 or becomes legally emancipated. Legal custody means that either parent can make decisions which affect the welfare of the child, such as medical treatments, religious practices and insurance claims. Physical custody means that one parent is held primarily responsible for the child's housing, educational needs and food. In most cases, the non-custodial parent still has visitation rights.
Most child custody cases end amicably, with former spouses agreeing to visitation schedules and support payments from the non-custodial parent. Some cases, however, must be judged based on the relative fitness of each parent to raise children. In extreme cases, a parent may be permanently denied visitation if his or her presence could seriously damage a child's sense of security. Contrary to movie and television portrayals, few parents are deemed so unfit that even supervised visitation is out of the question. Anger at a spouse does not always equal irresponsible parenting in child custody hearings.
One controversial aspect of child custody is an apparent bias towards mothers as primary custodians. States such as Pennsylvania used to follow an unofficial legal code called the "Tender Years Doctrine". Under this guideline, most custody rulings were in favor of the mother if there was no compelling evidence to the contrary. The belief was that mothers possess a protective instinct which made them better candidates for single parenting. Fathers would need to hire child care workers or enroll their children in daycare centers during working hours. This philosophy has changed over the years, allowing fathers to petition for sole custody if the mother is declared unfit.
One important thing to keep in mind during and after custody proceedings is the court's right to change its mind at any time. If enough objective evidence reaches the court's ears, custody arrangements can be amended quickly. This becomes important if one parent wants to move to a distant location or fails to adhere to a court-approved visitation schedule.