When parents with children go through a divorce in Illinois, the most contentious issue is often child custody. Most parents know they want as much custody as the courts will grant them, but what many do not know is which type or types of custody for which to fight. Illinois recognizes various types of custody, two of the most common of which are legal and physical.

Legal custody refers to the ability for one or both parents to make major decisions regarding the child’s welfare and upbringing. Some such decisions may involve the choice of schools, religious education, cultural education, tutoring, health care, extracurricular activities and other decisions that may affect child-rearing. In most situations, the courts will award “joint legal custody” to both parents.

Joint custody means both parents must share decision-making responsibilities. If one parent can prove that the other is unfit, or if the judge feels that a parent is unfit, they may award sole legal custody to one parent. However, these situations are less common.

Physical custody refers to the parent who will care for the child’s physical needs on a day-to-day basis. Though most parents strive for joint physical custody, 50/50 custody is often impractical, especially as the child ages. The courts typically prefer that the child lives with one parent a majority of the time to lessen the disruption on the child’s routine. The chosen parent is the “primary custodian” of the child.

The parent that is not the physical custodian of the child will get visitation rights. Typically, the courts grant non-custodial parents exclusive visitation every other weekend during the school year, every other week during the summer and alternating major holidays.

In rare instances will the courts grant one parent sole legal and physical custody. If a judge decides sole custody is in order, it is because one parent is either unfit or incapable of caring for the child.