Legal custody vs physical custody: What’s the difference?

Knowing your rights and responsibilities will help you be a better parent to your kids and co-parent to your ex.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

Figuring out child custody during a divorce process means determining two things: who has the right to make certain decisions about the child (called legal custody) and where the child lives (physical custody). The parents may share both types of custody, or one parent may have full custody in one or both areas of the child’s life.

Whatever the breakdown, both parents have responsibilities and rights. Use this guide to learn more about legal custody vs physical custody, how courts determine both types of custody and how an attorney may be able to help you with a custody case.

Legal custody refers to the authority granted to an individual to make certain decisions regarding a child’s well-being and upbringing. Typically, a parent with legal custody can make decisions regarding the child’s: 

  • Education
  • Health
  • Religious upbringing

A parent can have sole legal custody or joint legal custody of the child. 

  • When a parent has sole legal custody, they typically aren’t required to consult the other parent before making decisions regarding the child.
  • When two parents have joint legal custody, they share decision-making authority. 

Courts are typically hesitant to cut one parent out of the decision-making process entirely. So unless certain facts make sole legal custody more appropriate, most parents share joint legal custody.

Even if you don’t have legal custody, you have certain rights. For instance, a parent without legal custody might be entitled to visitation or parenting time. The amount of time and frequency of visitations are ultimately up to the court if the parties don’t agree to an arrangement willingly. During your parenting time, you may have the right to make decisions regarding the day-to-day care of your child.

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What is physical custody?

Physical custody focuses primarily on the physical care and supervision of the child. For example, physical custody governs matters such as: 

  • Where the child resides 
  • Which parent provides primary care and supervision of the child
  • Visitation and parenting time

As with legal custody, physical custody can be sole or joint.

  • Sole physical custody doesn’t typically mean that a parent has custody of their child all the time. In most cases, sole physical custody means the child primarily resides with one parent. Usually, the other parent has regular visitation with the child.
  • Joint physical custody doesn’t necessarily mean equal physical custody. It’s possible that one parent is awarded a greater portion of time with the child. 

Responsibilities of the non-custodial parent

While you have rights as the non-custodial parent, you may have certain obligations and responsibilities to comply with as well. Perhaps most important is the obligation to pay child support, if ordered by the court. 

In most cases, the non-custodial parent has a legal obligation to provide financial support to the custodial parent. This helps ensure that the child’s needs are adequately met and that the custodial parent has access to adequate funds to care for the child. 

Factors considered when making custody determinations

The court’s primary consideration in awarding legal and physical custody is the best interest of the child. Factors courts commonly use to determine what’s in the best interest of a child include the: 

  • Wishes of the child, taking into consideration their age and maturity level
  • Mental, physical and emotional needs of the child
  • Mental and physical health of the parents
  • Relationship between the child and their parents and other family members
  • Ability of each parent to provide a safe and stable home environment
  • Distance between the respective parents’ homes
  • Work schedules and availability of each parent
  • Willingness of the parents to communicate and cooperate with each other in making decisions for their child 
  • Existence of domestic violence or abuse in the home
  • Any other factors deemed relevant by the court

When to talk with an attorney

Child custody matters can be complicated and contentious. Having an attorney in your corner may help alleviate some stress and make the process feel more manageable. 

An experienced family law and child custody attorney can help you: 

  • Understand the law in your jurisdiction and evaluate how it applies to your particular situation
  • Analyze your case and assess the strengths and weaknesses of your position
  • Develop a legal strategy 
  • Gather evidence to help support your claims
  • Locate and prepare potential witnesses who may be able to testify on your behalf
  • Negotiate with your child’s other parent and their legal counsel in an effort to reach an amicable and mutually agreeable custody arrangement
  • Draft and file relevant court documents
  • Appear in court on your behalf 
  • Seek modification of existing orders 

Hiring a lawyer isn’t a prerequisite to proceeding with your case. However, doing so may increase the chances of getting a custody arrangement that fulfills your desires.

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Frequently asked questions

If I have sole custody do I have to allow visitation?

If you have sole custody, your child’s non-custodial parent likely has visitation rights. Unless circumstances exist that may pose a risk to the child’s well-being, courts frequently order and encourage visitation by the non-custodial parent. Failure to allow this visitation is a violation of a court order and may result in severe consequences, such as fines, decreased custody privileges or jail time.

What happens if parents with joint legal custody disagree?

When parents with joint legal custody disagree on certain issues, a good first step is to review any written parenting plan or custody agreement that’s in place between the parties. The applicable plan or agreement may outline specific provisions regarding what to do in the event of a disagreement. If no such plan exists, you might consider participating in mediation with a neutral third party to reach a mutually agreeable resolution. If mediation is unsuccessful, you may need to seek court intervention by filing a motion and making your respective arguments regarding the particular remedy or relief sought.

What are the advantages of joint custody?

Some of the most common advantages of joint custody include: 1) shared decision-making opportunities for both parents, 2) consistent relationship and regular contact between the child and both of their parents, 3) shared financial responsibilities for both parents and 4) greater financial resources to better meet the needs of the child.

What are the disadvantages of joint custody?

Disadvantages of joint custody frequently include: 1) challenges regarding communication, logistics and scheduling, 2) increased likelihood of disputes where the parties have differing parenting styles and 3) added stress for the child due to transitions between the parents’ respective homes.

Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

This page includes links to third party websites. The inclusion of third party websites is not an endorsement of their services.

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