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The difference between physical and legal custody

On Behalf of | May 28, 2024 | Family Law |

When it comes to child custody, two important terms often come up: physical custody and legal custody. While these terms relate to each other, they refer to distinct aspects of parental responsibilities and rights.

It is important to understand the difference before you petition the court for your custody rights.

What is physical custody?

Physical custody refers to where the child lives and which parent is responsible for providing day-to-day care. The parent with physical custody is the one who has the child living with them most of the time. This parent is responsible for meeting the child’s basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing and emotional support.

For example, if a child lives with their mother during the week and visits their father on weekends, the mother has primary physical custody, while the father has visitation rights.

What is legal custody?

Legal custody, on the other hand, refers to the right to make important decisions about the child’s upbringing. These decisions include matters such as education, healthcare, religious practices and extracurricular activities. Parents with legal custody have the authority to make these decisions on behalf of their child.

In many cases, parents share legal custody, which means they must consult each other and come to an agreement when making major decisions about their child’s life. For instance, if one parent wants to enroll the child in a private school, both parents with legal custody must agree to this decision.

How is custody awarded?

Courts typically award physical and legal custody independently. A parent may have primary physical custody but share legal custody with the other parent. Alternatively, parents may have joint physical custody, where the child spends significant time living with both parents, while only one parent has sole legal custody.

There are many factors influencing the determination of child custody. Take time to consider these facts as you pursue your case.



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