What is a Custodial Parent?

In this article you will learn about what it means to be a custodial parent and gain insight and information into the types of custody arrangements that are commonly granted within Australian courts.

Introduction to Custodial Parenting

Matters of child custody can be difficult and complex. Add to this the involvement of courts and lawyers and it can all become pretty confusing and hard to understand. Here we unpack what it means to be a custodial parent and provide some useful information to support parents who are working through the tough process of formalising custody arrangements for a shared child or children. 

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The best interests of the child should always be the number one priority in any custodial arrangements

What is a custodial parent?

In legal terms, there are two different types of custody that a parent can have; physical and legal. Legal custody means that a parent has the right to make important decisions related to the child’s life, including about their education, religion and medical needs. Physical custody relates to the actual physical care of the child. When making decisions surrounding what type of custody arrangement is the most appropriate, the court will take into account factors such as the history of the child’s relationship with each parent, each parents ability to meet the social, emotional and physical needs of the child and they will also consider the wishes of the child as well. These decisions are not made lightly and a parent can be left feeling unsure about what their custody arrangement actually means.

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What qualifies as a custodial parent?

Both parents have a parental responsibility towards their children until they turn 18 years of age. Changes in a families’ circumstance – like a divorce or separation – do not affect the parental responsibility in terms of the duties and authority that parents legally have under the Family law Act. In cases where both parents continue to share responsibility for a child, this is called ‘equal shared parental responsibility’ and means that both parents play a role in making decisions that relate to that child. It is important to note that equal shared responsibility does not mean equal time with the child so a child can reside with one parent more than the other whilst both parents continue to share full responsibility for the child.

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Equal shared responsibility does not always mean equal shared time with the child

In cases where the parents are not able to agree about the arrangements for a child or children, the courts can create an order that sets out the specific parental responsibilities for each parent. When a court order is created, the parent who either maintains sole physical custody of a child or who is the parent that the child lives with for the majority of the time will be considered the custodial parent. In most cases, a custodial parent may be eligible to receive child support from their ex-partner, but this will depend on a number of factors, including how much each parent earns. If you require further advice on what to do if you and an ex-partner are finding it difficult to agree on parenting arrangements for a child, the Family Court of Australia provides some useful information.  If you can’t agree on parenting arrangements – Family Court of Australia

Does custodial parent mean full custody?

It is true that in some cases one custodial parent might maintain full physical and legal custody of a child. This indeed means that the parent has full custody; the child lives with them and they are able to make the important decisions concerning that child’s life. However, since in some circumstances both parents can be considered custodial, the term itself does not refer to full custody.

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Custodial arrangements can be so difficult on children, but a toxic relationship can be so much worse for them to witness

What is a custodial parent vs a non-custodial parent?

When the courts can see that both parents are fit to care for and meet the needs of a child, they may determine that both parents are considered to be custodial. That being said, the court might refer to the parent that the child resides with the most as the custodial parent, even though both parents are sharing custody. This is where it becomes easy to see why parents find all of this so confusing – it certainly isn’t a straightforward matter.

A parent who does not have physical or legal custody of their minor child as a result of a court order is considered to be a non-custodial parent. This usually means that the child lives with a parent who maintains sole custody and who is responsible for the decision-making in relation to that child’s life. A non-custodial parent might have rights under  a court order that allows them visitation or contact with the child, and the non-custodial parent may be required to pay child support to the custodial parent. In cases where both parents are considered ‘custodial’, the court order will not deem either parent to be the non-custodial parent but might still attribute the label of ‘custodial parent’ to the one who the child lives with the most within the shared custody arrangement. For more information about visitation schedules in Australia, please visit the following website: Australia Custody & Visitation Schedules – Custody X Change

What is the most common child custody arrangement?

The two most common child custody arrangements are either one parent being listed as maintaining ‘sole custody’, or both parents listed as maintaining ‘joint custody’.

Sole custody means that the child will reside with one parent for the vast majority of their time. That parent will get to make the important decisions relating to the child and the other parent might be granted visitation rights. This can include overnight stays and longer visits during school holidays and the non-custodial parent maintains the right to attend activities and special events with the child and should be kept up to date about all major events occurring in that child’s life.

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Courts consider many things when deciding on custody arrangements – including age of child, child preference (age dependent) and location of parents

In circumstances of joint legal custody, the arrangement will involve both parents and means that they will make any major decisions about the child together. Joint physical custody will give both parents a fairly equal amount of the time with the child under an agreement of shared care. This can be particularly difficult if the parents don’t live very closely to one another. Courts will take into account many factors when developing a visitation schedule for a noncustodial parent, including the age of the child, the child’s regular routines and of course the parenting skills of that adult. Here are 6 Child Custody Agreements That May Work For You (justicefamilylawyers.com.au)

Summary – Custodial Parenting

No matter what the custody arrangement might be between two parents, the child should be able to maintain frequent communication with both parents where possible and appropriate. The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly complicated child custody arrangements in some countries and made it more challenging in joint custody situations. Separations and relationship breakdowns can be extremely traumatic for all involved and so the involvement of the courts can be really helpful in determining what arrangements will work best for each individual circumstance. If you would like to know more about parenting orders, check out the Parenting Orders handbook:  Parenting Orders – what you need to know Handbook 


G’day! I’m Ken, and this blog documents my journey to becoming an awesome Dad! I would love for you to join along on my journey as I discover and learn how to become the best Dad I can possibly be, and manage this goal with my challenging work commitments!

Kenny has 53 posts and counting. See all posts by Kenny

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