When you’re in the midst of divorce proceedings as a parent, managing custody arrangements with the ex-partner is probably going to be one of your primary concerns. In general, custody arrangements can be divided into two types: legal and physical. 

In this article, we’ll discuss in depth the main difference between legal custody and physical custody.

What is Legal Custody?

Legal custody is a term that refers to a custody arrangement where you have the right to make important decisions regarding your children, such as choosing where they go to school, determining the medical treatment that they can receive, and even what after-school activities they can join.

Types of Legal Custody

There are two types of legal custody: sole and joint. As you can probably guess, in sole legal custody, only one parent has the right to make decisions on the child’s behalf. In joint legal custody arrangements, both parents have equal rights to do so, and when disagreements occur a resolution that both parties can agree on needs to be reached.

In most divorce cases, both parents receive joint legal custody. However, there are circumstances where a judge may choose to award legal custody only to one party, such as those involving abuse and neglect. 

It is also possible for one party to petition for sole legal custody following a judge’s ruling for joint legal custody if the parent believes it is in the best interest of the child to do so.

What is Physical Custody?

Physical custody refers to a custody arrangement where the parent has the right to live with and take care of the children on a regular basis.

Types of Physical Custody

Just like legal custody, there are two types of physical custody, commonly referred to as sole/primary or joint physical custody. In sole physical custody, the child would live in one parent’s household the majority of the time—or even all of it. Oftentimes, the other parent would get visitation rights where they get to spend time with their children according to a schedule that has been agreed upon by a court’s ruling.

In joint physical custody, both parents have the right to have their children live in their homes; but how that arrangement works in practice depends a lot on the relationship between the parents post-divorce. As with legal custody, a judge will typically award joint physical custody rights by default unless one party requests otherwise.

The Difference Between Legal and Physical Custody

As you can see from the explanation provided above, there are several differences between legal and physical custody.

For one, having legal custody does not necessarily mean you have physical custody of your children. However, vice-versa does not apply in the majority of these situations—the parent who has physical custody of their child usually has legal custody over them. 

Joint physical custody requires more time commitment from both parents, and may not suit all situations, especially if the divorce was not amicable. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to managing custody arrangements. You and the other parent would need to discuss this in depth to come to an agreement that is best for your children.

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