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Child Custody vs. Child Placement: What is the Difference?

Custody and Placement are two family law concepts that are often confused or used interchangeably. However, they are very different and are, in some ways, not even related!

In Wisconsin, child custody refers to the right of a parent to make major decisions for the child. Major decisions include such things as consent to marry, consent to enter military service, consent to obtain a driver’s license and authorization for nonemergency health care and choice of school and religion.

Custody can be “sole”—meaning only one parent has the right to make major decisions, or “joint”—meaning both parents have equal rights to make those decisions and must make them together. A parent can have joint custody even if his child does not live with him or spend any overnights at his house. Likewise, it is possible for a parent to have liberal visitation with his child even though the other parent has sole custody. There is a presumption in Wisconsin that parents should share joint custody—even in situations where the parents were never married or never lived together. Sole custody to only one parent is very rare.

Placement, on the other hand, refers to where the child sleeps at night. There are two types of placement: “primary”—where the child sleeps at one parent’s house more than 75 percent of the time, and “shared”—where the child sleeps at each parent’s house more than 25 percent of the time. Shared placement is much more common than primary placement.

When parents have joint custody, they are both expected to make day-to-day decisions for their children that are consistent with their major decision making rights. For example, if the parents have joint custody and agree that a child should be raised in the Catholic religion, it would be reasonable for each parent to decide whether or not the child should go to Mass during his or her period of placement. However, if one parent decided to take the child to services at a Jewish Synagogue instead, this would be a violation of the joint custody order because it goes against the major decision regarding religion reached by both parents.

Likewise, if the parents make the major custodial decision to send their child to public school, one parent could not unilaterally enroll the child in a parochial school or in a virtual academy—even if it were only on his or her designated placement days.

If you have questions about what kind of custody and placement arrangements are best for your family, or if you would like to discuss modifying your current arrangements to something more suitable for you and your children, please contact us for a free no-obligation consultation.

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