What are the different types of child custody arrangements in New York?

Child custody in Long Island and New York, applies to children until they are eighteen years of age.  Although eighteen is the age of majority in custody cases, child support continues in New York until age 21 for unemancipated children.  The different types of custody situations are fairly uniform throughout New York.  What this means is whether you live in Suffolk, Nassau, Queens or elsewhere, the different options for a settlement or decision on custody and parenting time matters should not vary too greatly with geography.  It helps to have a working knowledge of what the different options are that are out there to know what to seek in your specific case.  I will attempt to define what the most common custody arrangements mean in this blog entry.

There are two major areas of custody of a child that need to be decided.  The first is with which parent the child lives.  When a child lives with a parent, pursuant to a court order, this means that the parent has residential custody according to the law.  The second major area that needs to be defined in a custody order is who has decision making authority for the minor child.  The parent or parents who has/have the decision making power under the court order is said to have legal custody.

When someone has “Full” or “Sole” custody, that usually means that the child lives with that parent and that parent has full decision making authority for the child.  In this situation that parent is the only person that has the authority to make decisions for the child.  In other words, the person that has full or sole custody has both residential and legal custody for the child.  Often it is understood and ordered that this person should consult with the other parent before a decision is made, however, ultimately the parent with sole custody gets to make the final decision.  The parent that does not live with the children, or the parent that does not have residential custody in any of the custody situations usually has the right to parenting time or a visitation schedule.  Details about different parenting time or visitation schedules will be the subject of a future blog entry.

A common arrangement is when one parent has residential custody and the two parents share legal custody or joint legal custody.  This means that the child or children live with the parent that has residential custody, but the parents need to make decisions together for the child(ren).  Some people call joint legal custody “shared custody”, meaning they share legal custody, which can be confusing as it is not always clear if it is intended that they also share residential custody which is another, less common, arrangement.  Accordingly I like to be clear when using the term “shared” whether people mean shared residential custody or shared legal custody or both.

Shared residential and legal custody describes an arrangement where the child(ren) live an equal amount of time with both parents.  The parents make decisions together for the child(ren) in this case.  Usually, shared and joint legal custody arrangements are only made by agreements of the parents.  What this means is that if the parents do not agree to a joint or shared custody arrangement, chances are a court will order that one parent has full custody and the other is allowed parenting time (visitation).

The foregoing were general descriptions of the most common custody arrangements that are found.  Sometimes, however, hybrid forms of custody orders or agreements are made.  For example, the custody situation might be called “joint legal”, which means that both parents are supposed to make decisions together for the child, but it might provide that one parent has final decision making authority in the event that the parents can not agree on a decision.  I consider this a hybrid because it is entitled “joint” legal custody and provides that parents should try to make decisions together as in the normal case of joint custody.  However, in this selection, one parent ultimately has the right to make the decision in the event of disagreement, like sole custody.

A variation of this hybrid situation is stating that one parent has sole custody but must consult with the other parent about decisions before one is made.  All the other common aspects of joint legal custody can be included such as each parent is entitled to speak with all the professionals that care for the children and obtain records directly from the professionals.  Another hybrid type situation is joint legal custody with “spheres of influence”.  In this situation, one parent has final decision making authority over a major category of custody decisions to be made.  The three usual major categories are education matters, healthcare matters, and general social welfare matters.  So, one parent’s sphere of influence might be over education matters while the other parent has healthcare and general social welfare.  Of course variations are possible and are made in cases.

The details of each custody and parenting time agreement or order can vary but hopefully this entry has illuminated the different options that are out there.  Feel free to contact this office for a free initial consultation if you think you might need a lawyer.  Couples contemplating mediation are invited to come in together for a half hour no fee consultation.

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