This is admittedly open-ended any may just depend too much on use-case. I am looking for advice on when it is preferable to create a custom Contact Reference field instead of just creating a custom relationship.

If you have an example of a situation where you chose one over the other, that would be helpful.

  • 1
    One thing to keep in mind - maintaining relationships can put a burden on the user/administrator. For example, setting up for spouses, the way the system is designed, encourages (does not require) a household + spouse A + Spouse B. I've found there is a lot of overhead / training / automation to manage the household. Commented Apr 6, 2015 at 20:45

2 Answers 2



  • Can be used to give permissions between contacts
  • Have a start & end date
  • Can attach notes & additional custom data
  • Can be displayed as advanced search results

Custom contact reference fields

  • Can be added to a profile form
  • Can be displayed in its own tab or section of the contact summary page
  • Customizable autocomplete filters for limiting which contacts are selectable


  • Can be added to a (drupal) webform
  • Are searchable via advanced search
  • Could be the basis of a smart group
  • Can be used in a report (although custom fields are in all reports whereas relationships are only in certain reports)

In my experience, I default toward relationships, but might use a custom reference field in these situations:

  • I need to export multiple people with the same relationship. For instance, if Andy and Beth both have a "Mentor of" relationship to Johnny, you can't export Johnny's record showing both mentors. So I'll make two contact reference fields.
  • You need to create a form where a site visitor needs to specify an existing contact. For instance, if new members must be referred by existing members, you may want them to be able to submit a profile that indicates who the referring member is. If you use Webform-CiviCRM Integration, I think you can do this with a relationship, but otherwise, you need a contact reference field.
  • Awesome, thanks, this is exactly what I was looking for. I'm keeping this open for a while to see what others have to share.
    – LunkRat
    Commented Apr 6, 2015 at 18:28

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