An Examination of Varied Child Custody Arrangements in India

Table of Contents

I. Introduction………………………………………………….1

II. Legal Framework of Child Custody in India……………………………………2-5

VII. Case Studies and Real-life Examples……………………….6

VIII. Recommendations for Improving Child Custody Practices in India………………………..7

IX. Conclusion…………………………8

X. References……………………………..9


Child custody proceedings that happen at the time of post-marital breakdowns aim at determining the child’s best interests. Past legal norms favored paternal authority, but reforms shifted focus to the child’s welfare. India’s legal framework evolved to prioritize the child’s welfare, considering factors like parental capability and stability. This paper explores India’s child custody laws, traditional and modern trends, challenges, international comparisons, and recommendations for improvement. It seeks to enhance understanding and promote policies safeguarding children’s welfare in custody proceedings.

I. Introduction

The Child custody proceedings basically come into play during or after a marriage breakup or separation, with the goal of determining the best interests of the child involved. In the past, paternal authority was predominant under Common law and colonial statutes, often leaving mothers in a secondary position in custody matters. However, over time, there have been significant legal reforms and societal changes that have shifted the focus towards child welfare. Laws such as the Custody of Infants Act, 1873, and subsequent acts have started to acknowledge the equal rights of both parents in custody disputes. In India, the Guardians and Wards Act of 1890 initially favoured paternal supremacy, but later legislation like the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956, shifted the focus to prioritize the child’s welfare above all else. This change in legislation reflects a movement towards a more child-centred approach to custody arrangements, ensuring the overall well-being of the child. The child custody is crucial during divorce or separation because it focuses on the well-being of the children involved. Courts carefully consider various factors like the child’s age, the ability of each parent to provide a safe environment, and the importance of maintaining stability and positive relationships. The goal is to create a custody arrangement that prioritizes the child’s best interests and supports their healthy development. By navigating these complexities with sensitivity and diligence, courts aim to provide children with stable and supportive environments where they can thrive despite the challenges of parental separation. This research paper seeks to comprehensively examine the varied child custody arrangements in India. It aims to explore the legal framework governing child custody, traditional and modern trends, challenges, comparative analysis with other countries, and recommendations for improvement. Through this analysis, the paper aims to contribute to a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding child custody in India.

II. Legal Framework of Child Custody in India

A. Overview of relevant laws and regulations 

The child custody laws in India differ according to various religious and secular framework but the welfare of the child is indeed the primary focus in custody cases, regardless of the religious or secular framework. Courts consider many factors to determine and protect the best interest of the child, including the parents’ ability to provide care, the child’s wishes if they are old enough to express them, and the overall well-being of the child. It’s crucial for the court to ensure that decisions are made with the child’s best interests at heart.

The various laws and regulations related to child custody under Hindu Law, Christian Law, Parsi Law, and the Special Marriage Act, Muslim Law and visitation rights are discussed below: 

• Under Hindu Law, child custody is addressed in Section 26 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955. For seeking the custodial rights, the petitioner needs to apply to the Family Court within its jurisdiction as per the HMA Act, 1955. Under this law, the Court can issue interim orders related to custody, maintenance, and education of the children, considering the children’s wishes whenever possible. The law is applicable when the child is a minor or they have not reached the age of majority as defined by the Indian Majority Act, 1875. After the decree is granted under the HMA Act of 1955, the applicant can file a petition for matters like custody, maintenance, and education, and the Court will make appropriate orders. Section 26 also gives the power to the Court to modify or revoke the decree as needed. The applications under Section 26 are required to be resolved within sixty days from serving notice to the respondent. The custody of a child under five years old is often granted to the mother due to the child’s tender age for ensuring the child’s best care. It is also stated under the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956 that for male children above the age of sixteen and female children over the age of fourteen should be given the right to express their preference regarding their custody. This legislative clause ensures that children who have reached these specified ages are not compelled to reside in a particular custody arrangement if they object to it. It recognizes the growing independence and maturity of children as they approach adulthood, allowing them to have a say in decisions that directly affect their well-being and living arrangements.

• Under Muslim Law, custody of the child is known as “Hizanat,” is primarily granted to the mother for the well-being and care of the child. This right is not absolute and may be revoked if the mother’s actions are detrimental to the child. The duration of custody varies among different schools of thought within Islam, ranging from the age of two to puberty for sons and until puberty or marriage for daughters. After the mother, other female relatives (Mother’s mother, Father’s mother, Full Sister, uterine Sister, Consanguine sister, Full sister’s daughter, Uterine sister’s daughter, Consanguine sister’s daughter, Maternal aunts, sisters and Paternal aunt). may also be entitled to custody. The father may be granted custody if the mother is disqualified or absent. However, the father’s right is not absolute, and the child’s welfare remains paramount. Other male relatives(Nearest paternal grandfather, Full brother, Consanguine brother, Full brother’s son, Consanguine brother’s father, Full brothers of the father, Consanguine brother of the father, Father’s brother’s son, and Father’s consanguine brother’s son.) may also be entitled to custody in the absence of both parents. It is essential to understand that the mother’s custody right is solely for the child’s well-being and care, not an unrestricted right. If the mother’s actions are harmful to the child, her custody right may be taken away. The mother retains custody regardless of the child’s legitimacy. In the case of Zynab Bi Alias Bibijan vs Mohammad Ghouse Mohideen, the court emphasized that the mother cannot relocate the children at will, disregarding the father’s right to supervise them.

i) In Muslim law, the custody of a son varies among different schools of thought. According to the Hanafi school, the mother has the right to custody of her son until he turns seven years old. In contrast, Shia Muslims believe that the mother’s custody of her son extends until the child is two years old, the age at which weaning typically occurs. For Malikis, the mother’s right to custody continues until the son reaches puberty. However, Shafis and Hanbalis follow a similar rule to the Hanafis, allowing the son to choose to stay with the mother once he turns seven. 

ii) The custody of a daughter, the Hanafi school states that the mother has custody until the daughter reaches puberty. In contrast, Malikis, Shafis, and Hanbalis allow the mother to retain custody of her daughter until she gets married. Once the daughter is married, the mother’s custody rights cease. Among Ithna Asharis Muslims, the mother’s right to custody of her daughter lasts until the daughter reaches seven years of age.

• Under Christian Law, child custody is outlined in Sections 41-44 of the Indian Divorce Act, 1869. While Section 41 deals with custody in cases of judicial separation the Section 43 covers custody in cases of marriage dissolution and decree for nullity of marriage. These sections under the act empower the court to make interim orders regarding the child’s custody, maintenance, and education during judicial separation and marriage dissolution proceedings. This ensures that the child’s well-being and care are prioritized and addressed by the legal system in such situations.

• Under Parsi Law, the guidelines for custodianship and guardianship rights of the child are specified in the Guardians and Wards Act, 1890. Section 7(1) of the Act allows the Court to appoint a guardian for a minor’s person or property, or both, if it deems it to be in the minor’s best interests. Section 17(1) states that the Court must consider what is most beneficial for the minor’s welfare, in accordance with the applicable law. Additionally, Section 27(2) outlines factors for the Court to consider when appointing a guardian, including the minor’s age, sex, religion, the guardian’s character and capacity, kinship to the minor, any wishes of a deceased parent, and past relationships with the guardian. These provisions ensure that the minor’s well-being and interests are safeguarded under Parsi Law.

• Under the Special Marriage Act, 1954, the provision for child custodianship is explained in Section 38. This section deals with matters related to child custody in the context of restitution of conjugal rights, judicial separation (Chapter V), and nullity of marriage, divorce (Chapter VI). The Court, as per Section 38, has the authority to issue interim orders and make necessary adjustments deemed “just and proper,” considering the children’s wishes, especially regarding custody, maintenance, and education. The Court can also modify or suspend its orders related to these matters within sixty days of notifying the respondent. 

• The custody to a third person can also be given under certain conditions. While custody typically rests with one parent, the court can grant custody to a third party for the minor child’s well-being. As it was decided in the case of Baby v. Vijai where the Court emphasized the importance of the child’s best interests when determining custodial arrangements by giving the custody to a third person.

• Visitation rights are crucial for the non-custodial parent to spend time with the child. The court considers factors like the child’s age, holidays, and the distance between parents’ residences when creating visitation schedules. It is the responsibility of the custodial parent to ensure the child’s well-being during visitation. In the case of Dr. V. Ravi Chandran v. Union of India & others it was stated that in situations where one parent unjustly denies visitation rights, the court may step in to enforce them.

• In live-in relationships, children born from such unions are legally recognized by the court, acknowledging the parental relationship. Despite live-in relationships not being considered formal marriages, children born from these relationships are entitled to the same rights as children born within traditional marriages. This includes custody and maintenance rights, ensuring that children from live-in relationships are protected and supported under the law. 

B. Types of custody arrangements recognized in Indian law

Custody arrangements are designed to prioritize the well-being of the child and provide them with a stable and nurturing environment. It’s crucial to consider the abilities and situations of the parents or guardians to ensure that the child’s best interests are at the forefront of any custody decision. This approach helps create a supportive and loving environment for the child to thrive in despite the challenges of parental separation. In India the child custody arrangements vary depending on the circumstances of the parents and the best interests of the child. The following arrangements are discussed below:

(i) Physical Custody is when a parent has the right for the child to live with them. This can be granted solely to one parent if the court decides the other parent is not suitable. Physical custody can also be shared equally between both parents, and the child may primarily reside with one parent. The child’s main residence is where they spend most of their time, aiming to provide a nurturing and family-oriented environment.

(ii) Joint Physical Custody involves both parents having custody rights, allowing them to share time with the child. It doesn’t require the parents to live together; instead, they take turns caring for the child. Joint custody ensures that both parents play an active role in the child’s life, providing the child with equal love and attention from both parents.

(iii) Sole Custody grants one parent complete rights and responsibilities regarding the child’s upbringing. This parent has both physical and legal custody, giving them authority over important decisions like education, religion, and medical care without requiring the other parent’s agreement. Sole custody is usually awarded if one parent is considered unsuitable or unable to care for the child.

(iv) Third Party Custody may happen when custody is granted to someone who is not a biological parent. This can occur if both biological parents are unfit or incapable of caring for the child due to issues like abuse, neglect, substance misuse, or abandonment. Third-party custody may also be granted if the biological parents agree to let someone else raise their child. The court may step in to ensure the child’s well-being and may award custody to a third party if needed.

C. Factors influencing custody determinations

1. Parental Wishes: The court considers the preferences of both parents, especially if they can agree. If not, the child’s best interests are the priority

2. Child’s Wishes: The court may consider the child’s preferences based on age and maturity, but parental wishes have more weight. 

3. Parent-Child Relationships: The bond between each parent and the child is evaluated, favouring the more involved parent.

4. Mental and Physical Health: The well-being of parents and children, including any disabilities or mental health conditions, is considered. 

5. Cooperation Between Parents: The court values parents who cooperate and support the child’s relationship with the other parent. 

6. Primary Caregiver Role: The parent who has been the primary caregiver, offering emotional and physical support, may have an advantage. 

7. Living Conditions: The suitability of each parent’s living situation, safety, cleanliness, and proximity to necessary facilities are assessed. 

8. Adjustment for the Child: The court aims to minimize disruptions in the child’s life when determining custody arrangements. 

9. Abuse or Neglect Allegations: Allegations of abuse or neglect are serious and can significantly impact custody decisions, while false allegations are also considered in the decision-making process

III. Case Studies and Real-life Examples

• In Nithya Anand Raghavan vs State Of Nct Of Delh

♦ Background or Facts: The appellant, Nithya Anand Raghavan, and the respondent no.2, both Indian citizens, were married in Chennai in 2006 and subsequently moved to the United Kingdom (UK) where they resided with their daughter, Nethra. Disputes arose between the parties, leading to periods of separation, with Nithya and Nethra returning to India on multiple occasions. Allegations of domestic violence were made by Nithya against respondent no.2.

♦ Issue: The main issue in this case is the custody of the minor daughter, Nethra, who was allegedly illegally removed by the mother, Nithya, from the custody of the father, respondent no.2, in the UK and brought to India. The question before the court is whether Nethra should be returned to the UK as ordered by the UK Court or allowed to remain in India with her mother.

♦ Judgment: The High Court of Delhi directed Nithya to produce Nethra and comply with the UK Court’s order within three weeks or alternatively hand over custody to respondent no.2. However, the Supreme Court overturned this decision, ruling that it would be in Nethra’s best interests to remain in the custody of her mother in India. The Court emphasized that Nethra, although having acquired British citizenship, is an Indian citizen by birth and has strong roots in India. It was noted that Nethra’s well-being and welfare, particularly given her alleged cardiac disorder and the alleged domestic violence, were paramount considerations. The Court also highlighted that the UK Court’s order was passed ex-parte and did not conclusively determine the lawfulness of Nethra’s custody with her mother. The principle of comity of courts was considered, but the Court ultimately prioritized the welfare of the child over the foreign court’s order. Therefore, the custody of Nethra with her mother, Nithya, was deemed lawful, and she was permitted to remain in India. 

• In Saraswatibai Shripad Ved vs Shripad Vasanji Ved

♦ Facts: The case involves a dispute over the custody of a minor child. The parents of the minor, a boy born in October 1938, were married in February 1936. Subsequently, the mother contracted tuberculosis and had to undergo treatment, leaving the child in the custody of the father. Upon the mother’s return in May 1940, a dispute arose regarding the custody of the child, with the mother retaining custody since then. The father alleged that the child was taken by the mother’s uncle, while the mother claimed that the child was brought by a servant. The mother’s health was also a point of contention, with the father suggesting that her tuberculosis might pose a risk to the child.

♦ Issue: The main issue before the court is determining the custody of the minor child, considering the welfare and best interests of the child.

♦ Judgement: The court ruled in favor of granting custody to the mother, emphasizing the importance of the mother’s role in the upbringing of a young child. The judge cited English legal precedent, stating that if the natural mother is deemed suitable, custody of a tender-aged child is generally awarded to her. While acknowledging the father’s rights as the natural guardian, the court prioritized the child’s welfare and concluded that the mother, who had recovered from tuberculosis, was the appropriate custodian. The judge also highlighted the impracticality of entrusting the child’s care to a stepmother and noted that the father could seek access to the child through court arrangements. The judgement further clarified that the father could make future applications to the court if circumstances warranted a change in custody arrangements, such as concerns about the mother’s health or the child’s well-being. 

IV Recommendations for Improving Child Custody Practices in India 

India can progress towards a more just and equitable child custody system that prioritizes the welfare of all children by adopting a child-centric approach and implementing the following measures:

i) Implementing a Uniform Civil Code: This involves introducing a uniform civil code that ensures equal rights and opportunities for both parents in child custody matters. 

ii) Judicial Training: Sensitizing judges to gender bias, cultural nuances, and the impact of parental alienation on children to make sure decisions are fair and impartial. 

iii) Increased Legal Aid: Providing affordable legal assistance to parents, especially those from marginalized communities, to guarantee access to justice for all parties involved. 

iv) Awareness Campaigns: Educating the public about their legal rights, options, and healthy co-parenting practices to foster understanding and cooperation between parents. 

v) Strengthening Child Welfare Systems: Increasing resources for child welfare assessments, counselling services, and support for children going through custody transitions to prioritize the well-being of all children.

V. Conclusion 

Thus, we can conclude by saying that Child custody cases involve a thorough evaluation of many factors to determine what’s best for the child. The child’s age, needs, well-being, stability, parent-child relationship, co-parenting ability, sibling bonds, and the child’s own preferences are all considered. Courts aim to create custody plans that prioritize the child’s welfare and encourage their healthy growth. By focusing on the child’s best interests and promoting cooperation, parents can navigate the challenges of custody cases and work towards a resolution that benefits their child’s well-being.

VI. References

(i) A critical analysis of child custody laws in India. (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2024, from

(ii) Nithya Anand Raghavan vs state of nct of Delhi on 3 july, 2017. (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2024, from

(iii) Saakshi Kumar. (2023, May 12). A Study On Custody Of Child And Visitation Rights Under Personal Laws In India. Ak Legal.

(iv) Saraswatibai shripad ved vs shripad vasanji ved on 11 october, 1940. (n.d.).

(v) (N.d.).

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