Legal versus Physical Custody

Custody cases have different terms that can be difficult to understand. Most people think of custody as the right to parent their children. After all, what else is there? It turns out it isn’t that simple. A custody order will address both legal and physical custody.

What is Legal Custody?

Legal custody is the right to have input in the important decisions in your child’s life. These include things like what school your child attends, the medical treatment that they receive, their religious education, and their extracurricular activities. Legal custody is either joint or sole.

If you have joint legal custody, the parents must consult before making any major decisions for the child. It is often a good idea to make sure that one parent or the other has final decision-making authority for certain types of decisions. If you and the child’s other parent are unable to agree after you’ve discussed an issue, the parent with final decision-making authority on that subject can make the call. If there is no final decision-making authority specified, then disagreements may have to be decided by the court.

In rare situations, a parent may have sole legal custody. This means that that parent can make decisions for the child without consulting the other parent. Sole legal custody can be granted in cases of abandonment, severe abuse, or other extreme circumstances, but this is not common. Even parents who have only visitation with their children usually have joint legal custody.

Legal custody stays the same over time no matter where the child is staying at that time. If you have joint legal custody, you will have it whether your child is staying with you or with their other parent.

Legal custody is NOT the same as your parental rights. Even if without legal custody of your child, you are still that child’s legal parent, meaning that you still have a responsibility to support your child and can still petition the court to modify a custody order regarding your child.

What is Physical Custody?

Physical custody represents the right for you to have your child live with you in your physical care or to decide where your child is going to stay. Physical custody can also be sole or joint.

With sole physical custody the child lives with that parent full-time. The other parent may be allowed visitation with the child or may not. Sole physical custody does NOT mean that a parent has sole legal custody – a parent with sole physical custody may still have to consult the other parent when making major decisions.

Joint physical custody can be split 50/50, or one parent can have primary custody (physical control of the child more than half the time), while the other has secondary custody (often on some weekends, holidays, and summer months).  With joint physical custody, parents have the right to make everyday decisions like what the child will eat, when the child will go to bed, or what the child will wear when the child is staying with that parent. Any major decisions, however, still must be discussed between parents with joint legal custody, no matter where the child is living at that time.