If a couple with children separate or divorce, important questions arise. Who will take care of the children? With whom will the children live? In legal terms, the question is Who will have custody of the children?

Custody decisions are important because the parent with custody decides most aspects of the child's life, such as where the child will live and go to school. Custody may be temporary, or it may be permanently awarded to one parent. After it is awarded, unless circumstances change significantly, it is rarely changed. For example, if the custodial parent became addicted to drugs, the court could order a change of custody.

The noncustodial parent is usually given visitation rights. This means tht her or she can visit with the child on certain days and at certain times of the year. Both parents are required to contribute to the support of the child. The parent who has custody makes these contributions in the day to day life of the child. The noncustodial parent make these contributions in the form of a regular monetary payment to the parent who has custody of the child.

Sometimes courts award custody to both parents. This is known as joint custody. Both parents have full responsibility for the child's supervision, and both have an equal say in important issues, such as schooling. The child may live part time with each parent. However the child need not spend the same amount of time with each parent. For example, a child who attends school near her father might spend school nights with him and weekends with the mother.

There may be concern that parents who may not be able to cooperate in a marriage may not be able to cooperate after a divorce, so there may be a problem with joint custody. Parents must be able to demonstrate an ability to work well together.Joint custody is successful only if both parents want responsibility for the child or children. A court cannot impose joint custody upon a parent who does not want it, both parent must come to an agreement. Mediation is often helpful for couples trying to make joint custody work.

If parents cannot agree on custody or the court does not approve their agreements, the decision is made by the court. Traditionally, the law presumed that young children were better off with their mothers, but now most laws require mean and women to be treated equally in custody disputes. In reality, some judges still favour the mother, especially when the decision involves young children, regardless of the desire or the ability of the father to care for his child. Sometimes judges will favour the father who show an interest in the custody of their children. Their reason may range from promoting non-discrimination, to wanting to encourage paternal interest, to punishing mothers who work rather than stay at home.

In determining custody, courts must decide what is in the best interest of the child, this is often difficult to determine they must look at factors such as the youth's actions in the home, school, and community, the emotional and economic stability of the parent, which parent has stronger bonds with the child, and which parent has been the primary care provider. They often consider the children's desires, especially if they are old enough to understand the ramifications of their wishes or are over a certain age, usually age 12.

Some custody disputes are so bitter that one parent takes the children from the other parent and hides them, This may involve taking the children and moving permanently to another state, or the parent and children may move constantly to avoid being found,

Some states have passed laws that allow grandparents to petition for visitation rights if the child's parents will not voluntarily grant visitation to them. Increases in substance abuse, divorce incarceration, and other family and community crises have resulted in many grandparents and other relatives raising children whose parents cannot do so.