Child custody and guardianship are legal terms which are sometimes used to describe the legal and practical relationship between a parent and his or her child, such as the right of the parent to make decisions for the child, and the parent’s duty to care for the child. Child custody also refers to the care, control, and maintenance of a child, which a court may award to one of the parents following a divorce or separation proceeding.
In most circumstances, state laws provide that biological parents make all the decisions involved in rearing their child — such as residence, education, health care, religious upbringing, and so forth. 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 who 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 determine custody.
District and state courts base their decisions on state laws relating to child custody, which vary greatly among states.