Custody Schedules Explained

By: Lauren V. Lewis

Child custody has two distinct parts: legal custody and physical custody.  Legal custody relates to who has the authority to make decisions concerning the child.  Physical custody relates to the schedule of when the child will be with each parent.  Talking about custody schedules can sound tricky with words like sole, primary, and visitation, for example, and can then be complicated by numerical references like “5-2-2-5” or “2-2-3.”  All of those descriptions refer to how the overnights are shared by the parents.  In North Carolina, the Child Support Guidelines direct that a child support calculation specifically correlates to the physical custody schedule.  As a result, physical custody schedules are generally set around an overnight schedule – where and with whom will the child be spending each night? 

Big picture: the actual and specific schedule is what matters most, not the language used to describe the schedule.  Sometimes the semantics mean more to one parent because they want the court order to specifically identify them as having “sole” custody or “primary” custody.  What is more important, though, is that the delineation of the schedule is clear and explicit. 

One end of the spectrum of physical custody schedules is equal parenting time when both parents have the same number of custody days and nights with the child.  The other end of the spectrum might look something like one parent having custody time with the child every other weekend from Friday through Sunday and maybe a dinner visit during the off week, which means the “primary” parent has significantly more custody time with the child during all of the other days. 

A schedule setting parents up with equal parenting time can take many forms.  Some examples of a rotating two-week equal parenting schedule are as follows: 

Week-on/Week-off with a Friday exchange: Each parent has a full, uninterrupted week of custody time. 

Sun Mon TuesWedThurs Fri Sat
Parent A Parent A Parent A Parent A Parent A Parent B Parent B 
Parent B Parent B Parent B Parent B Parent B Parent A Parent A 

5-2-2-5 schedule: Each parent has either every Monday/Tuesday or Wednesday/Thursday overnights every week and then they alternate the 3-day weekend every week (Friday through Monday). 

Sun MonTues WedThursFri Sat
Parent A Parent A Parent A Parent B Parent B Parent B Parent B 
Parent B Parent A Parent A Parent B Parent B Parent A Parent A 

2-2-3 schedule: Each parent has either every Monday/Tuesday or Wednesday/Thursday overnights every week, alternating each week, and then they alternate the 3-day weekend every week (Friday through Monday). 

Sun MonTues WedThurs FriSat
Parent A Parent B Parent B Parent A Parent A Parent B Parent B 
Parent B Parent A Parent A Parent B Parent B Parent A Parent A 

Since physical custody schedules can take any form, there are a variety of options for sharing parenting time.  It is most common in North Carolina for parents to alternate weekend parenting time weekly, and the weekends are most often defined as running from Friday through Sunday or Friday through Monday.  Depending on parent work schedules, geographic distances between the parental homes, children’s needs, school schedules, etc., the physical custody schedule can be tailored to each family’s circumstances.  If parents do not live close enough to one another to allow for custody exchanges to happen during the school week, then one parent will likely have more custody time with the child during the school year and, possibly, the other parent may have some additional time during the summer. 

Physical custody schedules are not one size fits all so it is important for parents to consider what needs matter most to their family.  Establishing a physical custody schedule after separating can create a new understanding of what the status quo is for children, which means the schedule may be in place for a long time.  It is important to consult an family law attorney when deciding to implement a custody schedule in order to understand the short-term and long-term implications.  

Lauren V. Lewis is a family attorney and a NC-board-certified family law specialist. She focuses her efforts on facilitating resolutions between parties. She understands and believes in the importance of family, even as families find themselves torn apart by separation and divorce. Through her years of practice, she has discovered that civility and diplomacy are the most valuable and effective tools for achieving the best results for her clients. Few people wish to emotionally endure or finance the high costs of protracted litigation, especially when doing so comes at the expense of their life’s work, both in family and in assets. The emotional, mental, and financial strain that prolonged courtroom litigation inflicts upon families is immense and oftentimes irreparable. It is for these reasons that Lauren works diligently to find a positive solution without court intervention. Lauren is a member of the Charlotte Collaborative Divorce Professionals and encourages alternative dispute resolution when reasonable and appropriate.