In most divorce actions, child custody disputes are likely to be the most bitter and divisive aspects of the entire proceeding. Divorce attorneys must ensure that clients are aware of the pitfalls of engaging in bitter custody battles and to educate them in the real meaning of the terms used in these proceedings to avoid unpleasant misunderstandings.
Child custody itself is a misunderstood term, for there are two aspects to custody: physical and decision-based. A parent who does not have physical custody may still have the right to be involved in decision-making, and can specify that certain decisions -- such as medical care -- be shared by both parents. Physical custody, which is the aspect that most parents think of when considering custody, simply indicates that a parent has physical control of the child at any given time.
Judges generally prefer that parents work out custody issues themselves. Unless there is a very good reason to deny one parent physical custody, judges are usually accepting of most agreements to split time with the children, including 50/50 splits if the parents both live in the same area and the child's school schedule will not be disrupted. "Joint custody" and "sole custody" are often misused in this context. Joint custody refers to the fact that both parents have decision-making rights, while sole custody means that only one parent does, regardless of which parent the child is with at the time.
Some parents are working out novel custody arrangements, such as those in which one parent makes educational decisions while another makes religious or medical decisions. The more parents can work with a divorce attorney to craft an acceptable child-custody arrangement, the less the impact on the children of the overall divorce action.
Source: The Huffington Post, "Custody And Its Different Components," Eyal Talassazan, Oct. 16, 2012