A Description of Arizona’s Legal Definitions for Child Custody

It’s easy to get bogged down in confusing language and unfamiliar verbiage when you’re dealing with any legal case. But when that legal case involves the custody and care of your children, you need to know what’s going on and what that language means. While a family law attorney is a great resource to help you decode unfamiliar words and terms, this primer on Arizona child custody terms and definitions can help you get started.

Joint Custody

Joint custody means that both parents have decision-making power and share time with the children. Both of the parents retain their parental rights and are able to provide input about major decisions involving the children, such as religious upbringing, where they go to school, or who their doctor is.

In a joint custody arrangement, the parents are generally expected to make decisions together. If there is a disagreement about what is best for the child, the parents should discuss it in a civil manner until a mutually agreeable decision can be made. If this isn’t possible, one or both parties will need to file with the family courts to bring it to trial where a judge will decide.

Joint custody arrangements can have various parenting time schedules. Alternating weeks is a popular option, and it’s also possible to have a 3-4-4-3, 2-2-5-5, or 2-2-3 schedule. These refer to how many days each parent gets before switching off with the next. For example, a 3-4-4-3 schedule means Parent A would have the child for 3 days, and Parent B would have the child for the next 4 days. Parent A would have the next 4 days, and Parent B would have the next 3 days before the cycle begins again.

Sole Custody

Sole custody means that only one parent has legal decision-making power. The custodial parent is responsible for making all of the decisions regarding the child. While it’s always the goal that both parents have input and are active parts of their children’s lives, if the parents disagree over what should happen with the child, the custodial parent has the final say.

Because sole custody refers to legal custody, it’s still possible for sole custody arrangements to include shared parenting time. This could be the noncustodial parent getting the children every other weekend, or it could be a more generous schedule like the 3-4-4-3 schedule noted above.

Legal Decision-Making

When you hear someone discussing legal decision-making in a child custody case, they’re talking about who gets to make the decisions for the children. When the parents are married, the expectation is that they discuss anything related to the children and come to an agreement about what should happen. After a divorce, the courts will award one or both parents legal decision-making power.

Most decisions that fall under this category include those related to education, religion, and medical care. However, this could also include things like whether a child will participate in extracurricular activities or whether they should go to summer camp. If a parent must consent to something for the child to participate, it probably falls under legal decision-making.

Parenting Time

Parenting time is the more modern term for what used to be called visitation schedules. Today, we use parenting time instead of visitation to refer to a parent spending time with the children because parents don’t visit with their children; they parent them. Parenting time is any time a parent spends with the child, but it’s usually on a schedule in child custody cases.

A parenting time schedule refers to the court order that dictates how the parents will split their time with the children. A parenting time schedule is usually required for every child custody case, whether the parents have joint custody or just one parent has sole custody.


We’ve already discussed that parenting time is the proper term for when a parent spends time with a child, but then what is the legal definition of visitation? In Arizona, visitation refers to court-ordered time between a child and someone other than a biological parent. This could be a grandparent, a stepparent, or anyone else who has an established relationship with the child.

It can be difficult to win visitation cases in Arizona because the courts generally believe that the parents should get to make the decisions about who their child spends time with and when. However, there are situations where visitation is awarded. Generally, you need to be able to show that you have a strong relationship with the child and have been a consistent influence in their life. In cases where a parent has died and this has left that side of the family unable to see the child, it may be easier to get court-ordered visitation if the remaining parent isn’t facilitating it.

Putting It All Together

Custody and parenting time are a part of every child custody case, so it’s important to be familiar with these terms and everything they involve. While your attorney is always there to help you understand what’s happening, it can help make your case less stressful and make it easier for you to be a participant in your legal strategy if you understand the terminology.

If you’re dealing with a child custody case and find yourself overwhelmed by the legal terms or with questions about what your rights and options are, we can help. Call The Dodds Law Firm, PLC, at 623-267-0026 to schedule a time to discuss your case with an Arizona family law attorney.