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Child Custody

Divorced Parents, Unmarried Parents, Criteria For Custody Awards, Social Issues: Sexual Orientation And RaceChanging Custody Awards, Termination of Custody

The care, control, and maintenance of a child, which a court may award to one of the parents following a DIVORCE or separation proceeding.

Under most circumstances, state laws provide that biological parents make all decisions that are involved in rearing their child—such as residence, education, HEALTH CARE, and religious upbringing. Parents are not required to secure the legal right to make these decisions if they are married and are listed on the child's birth certificate. However, if there is disagreement about which parent has the right to make these decisions, or if government officials believe that a parent is unfit to make the decisions well, then family courts or juvenile courts will determine custody.

District and state courts base their decisions on state laws, which vary greatly among states. If a case challenges the constitutionality of a state law or—in rare instances—a state's jurisdiction (i.e., its right to decide the case), then the U.S. Supreme Court may issue an opinion.

Changing Custody Awards

Standards for changing custody awards are similarly vague, although most states' criteria allow courts to modify custody only when the circumstances of the custodial parent or of the children—not of the noncustodial parent—have changed. A 1993 Stanford University study of petitions to modify custody found that these awards were highly inconsistent, and it attributed them in many cases to personal gender biases held by judges.

Termination of Custody

Most types of custody end when the child is emancipated (i.e., considered a legal adult) by becoming self-supporting, by marrying, or by reaching the age of majority as specified by state law. Not until then does family court lose its power to determine custody.


Bahr, Stephen J., et al. 1994. "Trends in Child Custody Awards: Has the Removal of Maternal Preference Made a Difference?" Family Law Quarterly (summer).

Horne, Jennifer. 1993. "The Brady Bunch and Other Fictions: How Courts Decide Child Custody Disputes Involving Remarried Parents." Stanford Law Review (July).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Robert Lee Carter - Further Readings to Child Molestation