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What is a Custodial Parent?

By Nat Robinson
Updated May 16, 2024
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A custodial parent is the parent with whom a child resides with full time. Most custodial parents have been awarded physical custody of a child by a court of law. Generally, the parent with primary custody is also considered the primary care parent. He or she usually assumes the responsibility of providing all of the essential needs for the child. This may include providing shelter, clothing and food.

There are typically situations which lead to a person becoming the parent with primary custody. In most cases, the role is awarded following a legal separation or divorce. The parent chosen to have primary custody is usually the one who has shown that he or she can most adequately meet all of the needs of the child. In addition to feeding, clothing and providing a suitable residence, the parent may also need to show that he or she will provide a stable environment. This may mean that the parent will not be traveling often with or without the child, so that he or she can settle into one primary place of residence.

The opposite of a custodial parent is a non-custodial parent. This is the parent with whom the child does not reside with full time. Typically, there will be designated periods for the child to spend time with this parent. In a custody agreement, the time periods may be legally defined. Often, time with the parent who does not have primary custody may be limited to the weekends, holidays and summer months, as this time may coexist with the child's school schedule.

In most cases, a non-custodial parent will have certain obligations to the parent with primary custody. Generally, receiving some type of financial assistance from the nonresidential parent is one of the major parental rights. For this reason, non-residential parents may have to pay child support to the primary parent to supplement the financial costs of taking care of the child. In addition, he or she may be held responsible for paying other child expenses as well. This may include paying for child care, health insurance, school uniforms, extracurricular activities and recreational activities.

Certain situations may call for adjustments to be made in the primary custody arrangement. For instance, if the parent with whom the child resides full time becomes ill and is no longer able to take care of the child, the non-residential parent may have to assume the role as the primary care giver. If the primary care parent fails to continuously provide a stable environment for the child, the agreement may be changed as well. This may include the parent taking on a job requiring him or her to travel a lot or if he or she frequently changes residences. Additionally, if the child decides that he or she wishes to reside full time with the non-custodial parent, this may be another reason for the parental roles to change.

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Discussion Comments
By anon957967 — On Jun 23, 2014

Can a non-custodial parent demand babysitter information when the child is in the custodial parent's care?

By anon938935 — On Mar 11, 2014

When my daughter's mother was awarded primary custody, I was attending college and was not home full time. My daughter was two at the time. I have since graduated and am home full time.

I take her to school, and all extra curricular activities. Her mother now is attending college. Also our daughter has now been diagnosed with autism. I have been the one to complete all the paperwork and advocate for her to get assessed. She is in special education in preschool. Her mother, "te primary parent," is also developmentally delayed and is not able to contribute much to my daughter's success or planning I should say, however, she is a great support person. I just do not think she should be the primary custodial parent anymore now that her needs have changed. We split our time with her 50/50. I attend a Masters Program online and am home with her most of the time.

By anon359383 — On Dec 17, 2013

My ex-husband and I have joint custody of our daughter, but I am the primary custodial parent (in Louisiana).

My ex-husband's wife has suddenly decided to show up at my daughter's school and go on my daughter's field trips. My ex-husband and his wife do not inform me of these happenings until after the fact. Is there any way I can limit my ex-husband's wife from showing up at my daughter's school events without asking or letting me know ahead of time?

By anon356486 — On Nov 25, 2013

My question involves a child custody case from the state of: South Carolina.

I posted a long post of all the details in my situation and for the most part everyone is saying everything I mentioned is irrelevant and it really only matters on who the primary caregiver was at the time my wife left.

We have no domestic violence, abuse, drugs nothing like that. My wife started stripping against my wishes and she just left. She immediately got an attorney and an apartment. This was completely surprising. She has, however, done it once before when she left me for another guy but we reconciled.

She works nights, a lot of them. Now that she's by herself I assume it would be even more nights. She says she won't work the nights she has the kids. I work Monday through Friday, school hours. I am home by 1 p.m. and pick up the kids from school every day, do their homework with them prepare dinner, give the littlest one a bath, and tuck them in. The other two children are 11 and 15. Can I possibly be the custodial parent?

It just doesn't seem fair that she can up and leave for whatever reason she is doing it and just change the kids' routines and stuff. Please let me know what you all think. --Robert

By anon333938 — On May 08, 2013

I am the custodial parent and mother of my 3 year old son. My ex was was only granted every other Friday in the temporary order but I finally agreed to letting him see my child every other weekend Friday through Sunday and then one day during the week until 8 p.m. He is also getting two weeks during the summer but they have to be separated by at least seven days in between his two weeks.

What he is trying to do is take my son for his week visitation through my weekends with my child and then giving him back for one day before he takes him back for his weekend. I don't think he should be able to do this.

By anon332569 — On Apr 30, 2013

I'm the non-custodial parent and Dad. I want to see my children and live as close to them as possible. My former wife is belligerent with me and often threatens to not let my children see me. My 16 year old son wants to spend more time with his peers, and this I understand. But after the last argument that my former wife and I had, my 16 year old son now says he doesn't want to see me or talk with me anymore. The arguing is obviously getting to him.

The only thing that "gets to me" is when my ex threatens to keep my children from me as a form of punishment, and it's the only thing that causes me to lose my cool when trying to talk with her. I feel I need to be protected from her, as I feel she is bullying me. She knows I don't want to go to court and she constantly holds the "law" in my face and treats everything I say as "a threat to her," which is ridiculous. I am no threat to anyone. I have only been loving to my children. The thing I don't have is money (I have a low paying job) and this makes it difficult for me to be in any kind of negotiating position with my ex, who feels all-powerful because she does have better access to money.

I am, I admit, behind on my support payments, but it's only because I don't make a lot. She knows this, and I thought we had an agreement that I would always do my best to help however I could, at least with my time (always available, never said "no" to chances to be with children). It looks like I'm going to have to go to court, as she has told me she's going to file a contempt charge against me because I become angry in my voice when I talk with her on the phone, but this happens only when she threatens to withhold my children, or now she is actively supporting my 16 year old's "decision" that he doesn't want to talk with me, even though she denies that she has anything to do with it. But I know he hears her abusive tone of voice with me and he is parroting what she does.

I'm immensely stressed out about this because I don't want trouble, and I loathe fighting with my ex, but she keeps sucking me into fights and I raise my voice out of sheer frustration because I feel I have so few options available to me. Can anybody offer me some suggestions, please?

By anon312820 — On Jan 09, 2013

I am the non custodial parent and when I keep my children one overnight during the week, I don't have time to wash their clothes before I leave for work. I work the graveyard shift. I pick them up at 6:00 pm and leave for work at 9:00 pm. By the time I help them with homework and fix them something for dinner, my evening is finished. The custodial parent constantly complains. It is only one set of clothes and shouldn't be a big deal for her to wash them. On my weekends, I always wash their clothes.

By zeegym — On Jun 26, 2012

I am having some issues with my children's non-custodian parent. (I am the custodial parent.) He/she keeps threatening me to take my 2 children away from me. I have been raising them for the last 10 years. His/her reason is that I get home from work at 6 or 7 pm and that the children are not supervised.

From my understanding, isn't it okay for a 15 year old to watch a 10 year old after school till a parent comes home from work? I do not work a night shift or anything.

Yet the non-custodian keeps having rotating shifts. It has been more recent (meaning 2-3 years) now that I rather not speak with the non-custodian parent (occasionally I do) due to his/her threats of taking me to court and stating he/she will take them away (threats to take the kids has been going on for almost 6 years).

I continue to receive insults from the non-custodian parent. I am tired of the threats what should I do?

I have not yet brought the non-custodian back to court in 10 years not even to modify the child support because I really am trying to avoid problems and feel threatened by this person. I would like to avoid all of that and I would like to have the children avoid even going through any battles that he/she may stir up.

I have asked the children how do they feel and they mentioned that they'd rather live with me and if the non-custodian parent wants to see them more often that is fine too (of which I have given the liberty of allowing them to see their non-custodian parent).

Should I go back to family court and modify the case since he/she and I can not come to an agreement that the children reside with me and I am not giving my custodian rights up?

I am just really frustrated and stressed out from his/her threats. I would hate to put the children in this position if they have to speak in a judge's chambers. Just because I won't give in to the non-custodian's wants.

I allow the non-custodian to see the children whenever he/she would like too (I purposely moved closer to his/her town so the distance is not far to travel which now is only 8 mins).

Any advice would be helpful or should I worry?

By bbpuff — On Oct 25, 2010

@BelugaWhale - You know I did not think that far ahead, but I know that once a child is a certain age (13 I believe where I live) they can decide who they want to live with. I am biding my time because I have only 2 more years until that happens. Other than that I would not want to think about my mother dying to be honest. If I were forced to deal with the situation I think I could reapply for custody or reinstatement of my rights, but I am not sure as I have not inquired on it.

By BelugaWhale — On Oct 25, 2010

@bbpuff - That sounds like a difficult situation and I hope everything turns out okay. Once you sign your rights over to some one can you get your child back later on? What if a death of the custodial parent occurs, who will she go to?

By bbpuff — On Oct 25, 2010

You should note that generally custodial parents and legal guardians are somewhat different... legally anyway. Legal guardians usually have the parents rights signed over to them. Once my ex had joint custody but a custodial parent (my mom) was in effect because neither of us could properly care of our daughter financially. We eventually signed over our rights to her because we knew it was best. Thankfully, she is on my side of the family and I get to see her all the time where as my ex (now in jail) doesn't really get to see her... or rather, chooses not to.

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