Like other states, South Carolina recognizes both legal and physical custody, and South Carolina courts can award either type as sole custody or joint custody. Legal custody refers to a parent’s right to make important decisions about their child’s life, such as where he goes to school and whether he receives religious training. Physical custody refers to the amount of time each parent spends with the child. When a court awards sole custody, only one parent has the rights granted; when joint custody is awarded, parents share the rights granted. For example, if the court awards joint legal custody, both parents have the right to make important decisions for the child.
When making custody decisions, South Carolina courts look at the best interests of the child, not the parents. To determine what arrangement is in the child’s best interests, South Carolina courts consider many factors, looking at any relevant information that impacts the child’s life. These factors include the fitness of the parents, parents’ moral conduct, any history of domestic violence, financial and educational resources of each parent, age of the child and his preferences, and opinions from experts, such as mental health professionals.
When one parent, called the custodial parent, is awarded sole or primary physical custody of a child, the other parent has a right to spend time with the child; this is known as “visitation.” Typically, South Carolina's standard visitation schedules offer the noncustodial parent every other weekend with the child, along with portions of holidays and summer vacation. The visitation schedule establishes a noncustodial parent’s rights and the custodial parent cannot interfere with the court-ordered visitation schedule.
South Carolina courts award custody based on the family’s circumstances at the time of the divorce, but those circumstances may change as the divorced spouses establish their separate lives. Unlike many other court orders, custody orders can be modified if there has been a substantial change in circumstances. To modify a custody order, a parent must file a new case in the appropriate court, usually the court that issued the original custody order, and request modification of the pre-existing custody terms. The judge will determine if there has been a significant change in circumstances and, if so, determine a new custody arrangement according to the best interests of the child.