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What is the difference between physical and legal custody?

On Behalf of | Mar 9, 2023 | Child-Related Matters

For many parents, the child custody portion of their divorce proceedings is certainly the most important part. They do want to work to get a fair split of the assets that they own and there are other areas to which they will give their attention. But the most important thing they want to do is ensure that they get custody of their children – or at least that they share custody with their ex.

However, one thing that people sometimes do not realize is that there are actually two different types of child custody. Understanding the differences between them can help parents to make informed decisions as they navigate the divorce process.

Physical custody

With physical custody, the court is determining where the child is going to live and who is going to take care of them. A very standard setup, for example, is to have one parent have custody for a week and then have the child live with the other parent for the next week. In this scenario, each parent shares joint physical custody.

If parents don’t share physical custody, the non-custodial parent could still be granted significant parenting time, they just won’t have the right of first say in re: where the child resides and how they’re raised in a day-to-day sort of way.

Legal custody

On the other side of the coin, you have legal custody. This is best thought of as the decision-making power for the child. A parent who has legal custody can decide things like where the child goes to school, what type of medical care they get, where they open a bank account and other consequential decisions that usually require the “sign off” of a parent or legal guardian.

Legal custody certainly can be split 50-50, as with shared physical custody. But it’s also possible for one parent to be given full legal custody, meaning they get to make all of the most consequential decisions on behalf of the child, even if the other parent has some level of physical custody.

The situation can get complicated and it’s important to understand exactly what your rights are and what obligations you have to both your ex and your child. Take the time to look into all the legal steps you’ll need to take as you go through this process so that you can make truly informed choices.