Jan 29

Essential and Effective Custody Terms When You’re the Custodial Parent

Written by: Megan Dell


As a custodial parent, it’s important to understand the custody terms that will be included in your child custody agreement. These terms will outline the rights and responsibilities of both you and the non-custodial parent, and will ultimately determine the custody arrangement for your child.

In this article, we’ll discuss the essential and effective custody terms that every custodial parent should know in order to ensure a successful and fair custody agreement.

The Difference Between Parental Rights and Parental Responsibilities

Child custody terms tend to address either the responsibilities a parent has or the rights the parent has. Understanding the difference between rights and responsibilities is key for envisioning a custody agreement that will serve your child’s well being.

Your Responsibilities as a Parent

Responsibilities are tasks that must be done, and they are usually undertaken by the custodial parent. These include providing a home where the child lives, ensuring the child’s health is managed, and being informed about the child’s academic progress.

Your Rights as a Parent

Rights are things parents are permitted, but not required, to do. Often, a custody agreement provides greater detail about the rights of a non-custodial parent.

Understanding Child Custody Terms

Custody Terms

Before we dive into the specific terms, it’s important to have a basic understanding of the different types of custody. There are two main types of custody: legal custody and physical custody.

Alternatively, these can be referred to as “decision-making authority” and “parenting time,” which is the terminology we prefer to use.

Decision-Making: Sole Custody vs. Joint Custody

Sole Legal Custody

As defined by S.C. Code Ann. Section 63-15-210(2), sole custody is when one parent has both the responsibilities and rights of making all major important decisions regarding the child. These decisions include the child’s education, medical appointments and health care and dental care, extracurricular activities, and religious education.

When one parent has sole custody of a child, they do not have to seek input from the other parent prior to making major decisions regarding the child.

Joint Legal Custody

As defined by S.C. Code Ann. Section 63-15-210(1), joint custody provides both parents equal rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child. This Code Section also authorizes the judge to determine which parent will have the authority to make specific types of decisions.

When joint custody is awarded in South Carolina Family Court, the court order must include details of the residential arrangements with each parent and how communications between the parents will take place. When making decisions for the child, if the parents disagree, then the parent who has the right to make the decision is often referred to as the “primary custodial parent.”

Though many families have joint custody orders, there is still considerable debate about whether South Carolina law presumes sole custody better serves children’s best interests. Therefore, you should not expect joint custody to be the result in your case.

Parenting Time

Mom spends time with her two kids under clear customy terms

Parenting time affects how much time the child spends with each parent, and the schedule the child regularly rotates between the parents’ houses.

The number of available parenting schedules is almost limitless, but school year schedules can range between:

  • An equal timesharing schedule in which the child resides with each parent 50% of the time; and
  • A “standard visitation schedule,” which usually means one parent has primary physical placement of the child, and the other parent has court ordered visitation on alternating weekends (for two or three nights).

As a practical matter, the more time the child resides with the secondary custodial parent, or non custodial parent, the more likely the parties are to share legal custody. 

Essential Custody Terms for the Custodial Parent

Now that we have a basic understanding child custody terminology, let’s explore the essential custody terms that every custodial parent should know and ensure is included in their custody agreement.

Major Decisions: Who Will Decide What By When?

If you have sole legal custody, then it is not likely you will be required to consult with the non custodial parent before making major decisions about your child’s life.

But if you have joint legal custody and are the primary custodial parent, then you are probably required to communicate with the secondary custodial parent before you make a major decision about your child’s welfare. This duty of consultation is one of the primary custodial parent’s responsibilities: it is something you are required to do.

Most joint custody orders address the following issues. But as the custodial parent, you want to protect yourself by ensuring the details of your custody agreement and order are clear about:

  1. What types of decisions can you make without consulting the secondary parent?
  2. What types of decisions require you to communicate with the secondary parent about the child’s upbringing? (These often include major medical decisions and major educational decisions, such as where the child attends school.)
  3. How are the communications between the child’s custodial parent and the child’s other parent supposed to occur: verbally, by email, by text message, or by some other method (such as a co-parenting program)?
  4. What notification, if any, are you required to give the other parent once you have made a decision for your child’s welfare?

Having these details specified can help avoid a future court fight about whether you fulfilled your responsibilities to your child and your child’s other parent.

Visitation Schedule: Who Will Exchange the Child Where and By When?

Mother enjoys spending time with her children after divorce 

The visitation schedule outlines when the non-custodial parent, or secondary custodial parent, will be entitled to parenting time with the child. Visitation is considered a right — something a parent may exercise — but is not always viewed as a responsibility.

To avoid disagreements and misunderstandings, your custody agreement should clearly detail how physical custody of the child is to be exchanged between parents, including which parent is responsible for any necessary transportation, the location where the child will be exchanged from the residential parent to the other parent (and back again), and the exact times the exchanges are to occur.

If there is a history of the non-custodial parent failing to exercise their visitation, then a custodial parent may also want their court order to specify how those situations will be handled.

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Child Support and Medical Expenses: Who Will Pay What for the Child by When?

Child support is a paid between parents to allow the child to have a comparable standard of living at each parent’s home. Usually, the parent who lives in the child’s primary home will be the recipient of child support, but a number of factors contribute to calculating parents’ obligations in a joint custody order. 

Most joint custody orders include a provision about which parent will be responsible for providing health insurance coverage for the benefit of the child. The South Carolina Child Support Guidelines anticipate the parent with primary physical custody will be responsible for paying the first $250.00 per child per year in any medical costs not covered by health insurance. For additional costs, each parent is likely to be required to contribute based on the percentage of their income relative to the total income of both parents. 

With any child custody arrangement, you want to make sure it is clear which parent is responsible for paying child support, when child support payments are due, how child support payments are to be made between parents, and what amount must be paid.

Similarly, because children’s medical expenses can be a significant cost for custodial parents, it’s important to outline how medical expenses for the child will be handled, including who is responsible for paying for them and how they will be reimbursed.

Taxes: Who Has the Right to Claim the Child As A Dependent?

Before we discuss taxes, you must understand: the Internal Revenue Service does not care what your court order says about which parent can claim the child. Instead, the Internal Revenue Code gives the parent who has primary physical custody of a child — the parent with whom the child spends more overnights per year — the right to claim the child.

However, when parents share either joint legal and physical custody or joint physical custody, then it is possible to negotiate each parent’s rights to claim their child as a dependent. (Being represented by a law firm familiar with how to put this in a custody agreement is important!)

Other Parenting Plan Details 

Father spending time with his two kids under customy terms

Because joint legal custody and joint physical custody can be difficult to navigate, an ideal custody agreement may include other details specific to your family. These can be everything from household routines, appropriate daily hygiene, discipline and behavioral techniques, and strategies for academic plans. 

Having a detailed parenting plan in place can help ensure that both parents are on the same page and can provide stability for the child.

Mediation Clause

A mediation clause is a term that requires both parents to attend mediation before taking any custody disputes to court. This can help prevent unnecessary legal battles and promote effective communication and co-parenting.

If a court determines the outcome of your family law case, then this type of clause is likely to be awarded to you. But if you are working toward a custody agreement, then this provision can be negotiated.

Kids eating a meal with their mom as part of previously agreed custody terms

Hire A Law Firm to Help with Your Custody Agreement

Joint custody cases require a comprehensive understanding of the custody terms that will help protect the custodial parent and the child’s wellbeing. An experienced law firm with a child custody mediation checklist can provide up-to-date information and address every necessary detail.