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People often experience confusion about what the term ‘custody’ really means. When the legal system talks about custody, the term usually refers to the right to make decisions about a child. “Custody” is really a bundle of rights and obligations, which include the right to physical care and control of the child, to decide the child’s place of residence, and to make decisions about the child’s health, education, religious upbringing, and well-being. A parent of a child, or any other person (for example, a grandparent or family friend) connected to the child may make an application for custody. 

For example, in a sole custody situation the custodial parent could decide whether to register the child in a regular school program or French Immersion even if the other parent opposed the decision. If the parents were joint custodial parents, they would have to agree about which school the child would attend.

While the rights and obligations that make up custody are usually dealt with all at once, courts can order or parties can agree that some of the rights and obligations will be split between the parties. For example, one parent could have the right to make final decisions about the child’s education while the other could have the right to make final decisions about the child’s health care treatment. This is referred to as parallel parenting.

Some parents may have a court order or agreement that the children will live equally with both of them. Others may have an arrangement where the children spend most of their time with one parent. The ‘custody’ label determines which person or combination of people has the right to make important decisions about the child’s welfare.

When making decisions about which parent should have custody of the children, the court’s job is to consider what arrangement is in the children’s best interests. The court will look at the whole situation in order to determine which arrangement will be best for the child.