Having custody of a child means being responsible for their care and upbringing. It includes making the major decisions in a child’s life. When parents are together they share custody of their children in whatever way works for them as a family. Once parents separate decisions must be made about how the children will continue to be cared for. Parents can agree on custody or they can ask the court to decide custody. For information about making an agreement or going to court for an order see Resolving Disputes.
Parents can agree, or courts can order, that one or more people have custody of a child. Although the terms used by the courts can vary a lot, when both parents have custody it is often called joint custody. Sometimes the term “parenting responsibilities” is used to refer to custody. When only one parent has custody it is often called sole custody. If one parent has sole custody the other parent typically has access to the child, meaning time with the child. Sometimes the term “parenting time” is used to refer to access.
When parents make an agreement about how to care for their child or ask the court to make an order they need to describe how major decisions will be made about the child’s life, where the child will live and when each parent will spend time with the child. These details about the parenting arrangement are what will determine the rights and responsibilities of each parent.
What a particular parenting arrangement is called can vary from case to case. Custody may be described as sole, joint, shared or split. Parents who make an agreement can decide for themselves what to call their arrangement, although it is helpful to use terms commonly used by the courts. Parents who ask the court to decide will use the terms sole custody, joint custody and access to describe the parenting arrangement they are requesting.
Parents can agree on or the court can order other conditions regarding custody of a child. For example, there may be a condition that a parent cannot take the child out of Saskatchewan without the written agreement of the other parent or that notice must be given before a child’s place of residence is changed. Conditions regarding parenting exchanges and communication between the parents can also be included.
When only one person has custody of a child the term sole custody is sometimes used to describe the custody arrangement. A parent with sole custody is responsible for making decisions about the child including things like where the child will live and go to school, the types of activities they will take part in, the type of religious or spiritual education they will receive, and whether or not to seek or consent to medical treatment.
When a parent has sole custody of a child, the child typically lives with that parent most of the time. While a parent with sole custody is the only parent responsible for making decisions in the child’s life, the amount of time the other parent spends with the child can vary widely.
Family law proceedings involving sole custody are guided by the belief that the child should have as much contact with both parents as is consistent with their best interests. When one parent seeks custody of a child the court must consider that parent’s willingness to facilitate contact between the child and the other parent.
When two or more people share decision-making responsibilities regarding the child and/or living time with the child the term joint custody is used. Traditionally joint custody required parents to be willing to cooperate and communicate with one another to reach decisions related to their child’s life and resolve disputes. In more recent times, however, courts have ordered joint custody in cases where both parents are capable parents, even when cooperation and communication is less than ideal, if such an order would be in the best interests of the child.
Joint custody arrangements and orders may use certain terms to describe the particulars of the parenting arrangement. While these terms can be confusing, and they may not always be used to describe exactly the same thing, it is important to remember that there are basically two aspects to be detailed. The first will involve decision-making and the second will involve where the child will live. Both of these aspects will usually be shared in joint custody, although the child may live most of the time with one parent and one parent may have the final authority to make decisions about the child if the parents are unable to agree.
When there is joint custody and the child lives most of the time with one parent the term primary residence is sometimes used when describing that living arrangement. Although the child lives mostly with one parent, with joint custody parents will typically share decision-making authority regarding the child.
When parents with joint custody share decision-making responsibilities and the child lives with each of them for an equal, or close to equal, amount of time the term shared custody is sometimes used to describe the arrangement in parenting plans and orders. Parents must be able and willing to communicate and cooperate in order to do what is best for the child.
When parents have difficulty putting their differences aside for the sake of their child the courts will sometimes order joint custody but arrange it so that each parent exercises their rights and responsibilities independent from one another. For example, each parent may have complete responsibility for the child and related decisions while the child is in their care, but have no say in these matters when the child is with the other parent. Alternatively, one parent may be totally responsible for some decisions, such as schooling and religion, while the other parent may be totally responsible for decisions related to sports and extracurricular activities. The term parallel parenting is sometimes used to describe this type of joint custody.