Physical vs Legal Custody of a Child: Is There a Difference

Judge gavel and colourful letters regarding child custody, family law concept

Did you know you can share legal custody with your ex-spouse but not share physical custody? For a long time now, almost 75% of custody has been awarded to the mother, but things are changing. If you’re currently going through a divorce, then you may need to understand child custody.

Most people talk about custody agreements in a general way without really understanding what they’re fighting for. Many parents advocate for full custody without fully understanding what they’re getting. Here is a detailed explanation of physical vs legal custody, so you know what you’re asking for.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to obligations and rights you have to make decisions regarding the child. Mostly, these decisions are about significant aspects of their lives. They could involve where they reside and study, their religious upbringing, extracurricular activities, childcare provider, medical decisions, sex education, etcetera.

Other minor decisions like what to eat, what toothpaste to use, and other day-to-day activities fall on the parent exercising physical custody at the time. Understand that you can also have either sole or joint legal custody. With sole custody, you will be the only one making all the decisions, which with joint custody, you’ll need to consult with your ex-spouse.

Joint Legal Custody

Joint legal custody is by far the most popular custody agreement. Both parents are awarded the ability to make decisions together about the child. Despite the fact that divorced parents may at times not see eye-to-eye, they have to make decisions based on the child’s best interest.

When your family is going through a transition, communication can be difficult. However, if you decide on joint custody, you must listen and learn to compromise with each other. This way, your decisions will not affect the child negatively now and in the future.

Medical Situation

When you have joint custody, both of you need to notify each other about the name and address of the health practitioners that examine and treat the child.

In most states, communication has to be made within three days of the first examination or treatment. Both parents have the authorization to take any necessary actions to protect the welfare and health of the child.

When one parent authorizes emergency treatments, they must notify the other as soon as possible. They have to communicate about the emergency situation and the procedures or treatments to solve the situation. Both parents will have the right to access the child’s dental or medical records and have the right to consult with professional providers.

Living Situation

Both parents need to notify each other about their current address. Both of you need to know about your phone numbers, both home and work, the child’s school, and any place the child will be spending time. Neither of you should use this information to harass, disturb or annoy the other or invade their privacy.

When the parent with the physical custody wants to move, they have to notify the other parent. This is especially important if the move will impact the ability of the other parent to visit their child.

If one parent does not notify the other about these decisions, they could be subjected to civil or criminal penalties. Depending on the case, the court could also change the physical or legal custody of the child.

Sole Legal Custody

Sole legal custody is relatively self-explanatory. It means that if you get it, you’re going to have the legal right to make all these decisions without your ex-spouse. Whether the decisions about school, their religion, or medication, the other spouse will have no right to question your decisions.

Still, different without the legal right to make decisions, the non-custodial parent still has access to the child’s medical, school, or dental records.

Physical Custody

Essentially, physical custody means getting the legal right to physically stay with the child at any given time. The parent that gets physical custody lives with the child and cares for them physically. When asking for physical custody, you need to consider where they’ll go to school and travel schedules.

There are two types of physical custody, which are sole physical custody and joint physical custody. Joint physical custody is when both parents spend a significant amount of time with the child. Sole custody is when the child lives with one parent and only visits the other at stipulated times.

Joint Physical Custody

Joint physical custody does not necessarily mean that both parents will get equal time with the child. It doesn’t mean that the child will spend half of that time with each parent. However, it does mean that both parents have frequent and substantial time as well as equal responsibilities to physically care for the child.

One of the parents gets primary physical custody, which means they stay with the child most of the time so they can attend school. Most of the time, joint custody works well if both parents live close to each other because of logistical feasibility. Both parents should be involved in raising the child and agree on things according to the best interest of the child.

Sole Physical Custody

Sole custody means that only one parent will live with the child. The child lives with the parent full time and gets visits from the other. Depending on the case, they could be supervised visits.

Physical vs Legal Custody

This is everything you need to understand about physical vs legal custody. We hope you have understood all the custody terms when looking into how to win a custody case. When both parents haven’t gone through a custody court case, both have equal rights to the child.

For more informative and valuable articles, please check out our blog section. We have so much more content prepared for you.


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