In legal terms, a conservator is a type of guardian whose function is to manage and protect. Instead of "custody," which might imply ownership of some kind, Texas law uses the word "conservatorship" to describe the post-divorce parent/child relationship. Courts generally make the decision on conservatorship, taking into account the child's needs, the parents' respective situations, and, for children older than 12, the child's preference. Note that conservatorship deals with the rights and obligations of Texas parents regarding their children; the actual division of visitation time is a separate issue.
If the court designates one parent a managing conservator, it means that parent has the right to make major decisions about a minor child. Among other decisions, the typical managing conservator has the right to decide on medical care and education, as well as the right to give required parental consent for activities like marriage or military service.
Unlike a managing conservator, a possessory conservator can't make important decisions for the child. The typical possessory conservator only has the right to visit and spend time with the child (as directed by the court), and may only make decisions for the child during the designated visitation times. A court may make a parent a possessory conservator if that parent has a criminal record, there was a previous issue of neglect or abandonment of the child, or the parent doesn't wish to have managing conservator responsibilities. In rare situations in which a parent's presence might endanger a child, the court may refuse possessory conservatorship status.
Sole Vs. Joint
When the court designates one parent as a managing conservator and the other as a possessory conservator, the legal situation is known as sole managing conservatorship. However, in the absence of special circumstances, Texas law assumes that both parents should be managing conservators. In this situation, known as joint managing conservatorship, parents share an equal right to make decisions for the child. However, even if the conservatorship is joint, a court may grant extra rights, such as the right to choose the child's primary residence and receive child support, to only one parent. Parents may also design their own joint managing conservatorship using their divorce agreement or parenting plan, but any such agreement still needs the judge's approval.