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Legal Custody Vs. Physical Custody

What’s the Difference Between Legal Custody and Physical Custody?

There are two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody. In almost all cases both of the custody types are shared between the parents. So what’s the difference between legal custody vs. physical custody? Legal custody involves decision making regarding the child’s life while physical custody deals with daily caretaking of the child. Keep reading to learn more about the different custody types and what each of them mean.

What Is Legal Custody?

Legal custody gives the parent the ability to make decisions for the child. A parent with legal custody of a child has the right to make decisions about the child’s medical care, schooling and education, and religious upbringing.

What Is Joint Legal Custody?

Typically, parents are awarded joint legal custody, which means that the parents must share in decision making regarding the children and that the parents have equal rights to the child’s medical and educational records.

Joint legal custody, unlike physical custody, has nothing to do with where the children live. The significance of frequently awarding joint legal custody is that the parent who has visitation rights or secondary physical custody of the children cannot be cut out of the decision-making process regarding any major issues involving the children.

What Is Physical Custody?

Physical custody gives the parent the right and obligation to take care of the child on a daily basis. Physical custody allows the parent to have the right for the child to live with him or her.

Typically, there is one parent designated as the primary physical custodian and the other parent receives secondary physical custody.

What Is Primary Physical Custody?

The courts determine primary physical custody based on several factors that vary by state, but most jurisdictions place great importance on who has been the child(ren)’s primary caregiver during the course of the marriage.

Ultimately, in circumstances of joint legal custody, one parent will be awarded final decision-making authority for times when the parents are unable to reach a mutual decision. Typically, the final decision goes to the parent who has primary physical custody. (Note: physical custody is, in most cases, also shared.)

It is not customary for a court to order 50-50 physical custody. It has become a recurring theme in custody cases that joint physical custody is not favorable for the children, which is why assigning primary physical custody and secondary physical custody is done instead.

Many judges are of the school of thought that a child should have one place to call home, one place that is their norm, and one place to keep them from bouncing back and forth too often.


Ten Things You Can Do To Sabotage Your Custody Battle

An Attorney’s Guide to Custody Battles: Part I

An Attorney’s Guide to Custody Battles: Part II

Will I Get Child Custody?

Child Custody Across State Lines

Dealing with Unjust Custody Laws: Part I

Dealing with Unjust Custody Laws: Part II

The Role of a Guardian Ad Litem in Custody Disputes


State Custody Statutes

Divorce Laws by State

A Dad’s Guide to Child Custody

Frank Murphy

Edited By Frank Murphy

Chief Compliance Officer
Frank Murphy

Frank Murphy is the Chief Compliance Officer and an Executive Partner at Cordell & Cordell. His responsibilities include oversight of the Firm’s compliance with Legal and Ethical obligations as well as contributing to the day-to-day operations of the Firm as an Executive Partner.

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