What Is the Difference Between Child Custody & Parental Rights?

By Kelly Mroz

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In child custody proceedings, the court assigns the rights and responsibilities for raising a child. The court can allocate custody rights between the parents, but also has the option to assign custody rights to people who are not the parents, such as grandparents. Just being a parent does not assure you of custody time; the court can decide not to give a parent any custody time but still require that parent to fulfill his responsibilities regarding his child, such as financial support. In a divorce, the terms 'child custody' and 'parental rights' are particularly confusing because some courts use them interchangeably.


Federal and state law defines what makes a person a 'parent.' You may become a parent through biology or adoption. A court can also decide that you are a parent, even if you are not of blood relation to the child and have not adopted the child. An example of this is when a husband accepts a child as his own, even though he knows his wife was unfaithful. When he asks for a DNA test during their divorce a few years later, the court may decide that he is still legally the father because of his earlier actions in accepting the child. Whether you become a parent by having a child, adopting a child or getting yourself named as a parent by the court, your basic rights and responsibilities as a parent are the same.

Rights and Responsibilities

The term 'parental rights' refers to both your rights and responsibilities as a parent. You have the right to decide how to raise your child and are responsible for caring for your child, including providing food, shelter, clothing, education, medical care, affection and appropriate discipline. Courts can terminate parental rights and responsibilities due to abuse or neglect of the child or after a parent gives a child up for adoption. However, if the parents are not married to each other, or are separated or divorced, the courts can divide up parental rights and responsibilities through child custody orders.

Child Custody

Child custody orders can be made by a court or by the child's parents in an agreement approved by the court, such as a divorce settlement. The court has two sets of rights it can allocate: time and decision making. The court can divide the child's time so that it is shared equally, so that one parent has all the time or anywhere in between. In allocating how decisions will be made, the court may allow one parent to make important choices for the child, such as medical or educational decisions, or require the parents to make these kinds of major decisions jointly.

Custody and Non-Parents

Courts can give custodial rights to individuals who are not a child's parents. Some states allow the courts to grant custody rights to grandparents. Non-parents may be able to get custody rights if there is no fit parent available. Even when there is a fit parent, some states allow non-parents who have been caring for a child to ask for custody.

Interchangeable Terms

Some states, such as Vermont and Ohio, use the terms 'child custody' and 'parental rights' interchangeably. When used this way, 'parental rights' has the same meaning as 'child custody' in other states. The term refers to the court's allocation of who controls the child's time and who makes decisions about the child's upbringing.