Custody and Access – what’s the difference?

The terms custody and access have been getting a lot of attention in the media recently because of the open court room of the Christie Brinkley/Peter Cook trial.


It’s amazing how many clients have come to my office questioning the difference between custody and access for their children. There is a significant difference and it’s important to understand what they mean to help you with planning your child’s best interests when it comes to decision making and visitation.


The Globe and Mail ran an interesting article today on the evidence parents use when it comes to a battle – which is something you would rather avoid.

What’s the difference?


Parents have both rights and responsibilities concerning their children. They must make decisions regarding their children’s health, education, and religion; support their children financially; and provide their children with a home. During the divorce process, however, the terms used to describe these rights and responsibilities can get confusing. Concepts often get mixed up, and definitions vary. As a result, parental expectations can become unclear.


In addition, the legal terms used by the family lawyers, judges, and other professionals can sound so cold and clinical that they are difficult to hear. The experts may not refer to you as “parents” but as your children’s “decision makers.” Instead of discussing the time you have to spend with the kids, they may talk about “access.” I have never ever heard parents refer to their parental authority or to time with their kids in such detached ways. Nonetheless, it is important to understand these terms.




Custody refers to who has the legal authority to make decisions regarding a child’s health, education, religion, and so forth. Generally speaking, custody does not establish residential status or access (visitation rights); those specifics are usually determined by the parenting plan (described below)


Joint custody means that both parents retain legal decision-making authority. If parents with joint custody have a problem coming to a decision about the child’s best interests, this can be resolved by a parenting expert such as an arbitrator or parenting coordinator.


Sole or full custody means that only one parent is given decision-making authority over the children, usually because it would be too difficult for the parents to make these decisions together. Needless to say, if you have sole custody, you must be especially careful to act in the best interests of your children.


The Parenting Plan




The parenting plan is an agreement between divorcing parents that clearly defines how each is to continue caring for his or her children following a separation. The goals of the parenting plan are to encourage the children’s relationship with both parents and to protect the childrenOpens in a new tab. from parental conflict. It can also be used as an intervention tool to help parents disengage from one another. Parents often fear losing control or being controlled, and a specific, structured plan can help quell those feelings.

The parenting plan provides a comprehensive schedule of each parent’s access to the children, outlines his or her co-parenting responsibilities, and establishes his or her role in parental decision making. The particulars of the plan depend on the relationship between the former spouses, each parent’s relationship with his or her children, and, of course, the children’s needs. It can be very detailed, and it may address questions.

The parenting plan can configure the residential arrangement in a variety of ways. In some families, children split their time fifty-fifty between their mother’s home and their father’s. In other cases, the children live most of the time at one parent’s home, which is called the primary residence; that parent is called the primary residential parent. The other parent, called the secondary residential parent, may have the children on select weekends and perhaps one day a week, and maybe on alternating holidays. There are, of course, many different ways to configure parental responsibility, and there is no right or wrong method.




Divorce is the dissolution of the legal contract between a married couple. It means the transforming of a family, not the ending of a family. When parents separate, it is better to think of the family as reorganized instead of broken. Everyone still needs each other. How parents handle the changes that occur because of the reorganization will have a direct effect on how well the children and parents fare after the separation. While change is often difficult, it doesn’t have to be destructive. It makes sense to get psychological support during such trying times. There are a lot of mistakes that don’t have to happen if parents are informed of the best way to solve their issues.

Deborah Moskovitch

This blog post was written by Deborah Moskovitch the author of "The Smart Divorce", the catalyst for this website. This evergreen book covers how to manage the divorce process for a less painful result.

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