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Legal & Physical Child Custody: What's the Difference?



In many states, there are two types of child custody: legal and physical. They may at first appearance sound the same, but they are not.

Custody is often thought of as which parent gets the children after a couple divorces. In previous years, one parent was typically designated the custodial parent, meaning the parent with whom the children live, while the other was the non-custodial parent, who typically had visitation rights but did not share in the custody.

These days, however, judges in most states prefer to order joint custody to encourage both parents active involvement in the lives of their children. Joint custody is sometimes called shared custody or shared parenting.However, joint child custody can be legal, physical, or both.

Child Custody: Legal and Physical

Parenting involves making the big decisions in a childrens lives: Where they will live, which school they will attend, how they are to be disciplined, and which religion, if any, they will practice are just a few. Parents with joint legal custody both get a say in making these important decisions. It does not matter with which parent the child primarily resides; with joint legal custody, both parents are involved in making the long-term decisions.

Parenting also involves giving daily direction in the smaller matters, such as what the child will do, wear, and eat on any given day. The custodial parent is the one who makes these decisions because that is with whom the child lives. However, with joint physical custody, both parents are involved in these smaller decisions because the children split their time living with both parents.

It is possible for a parent to have joint legal custody of their child, but not joint physical custody. It is also possible, though much more rare, for parents to have joint physical custody but only one of them to have sole legal custody. You and your child's other parent should consult your attorneys for how child custody would best work in your particular set of circumstances.

Sharing in joint physical custody does not necessarily mean a child spends 50 percent of his or her time with one parent, and the other 50 percent with the other. The split can be as disparate as 70-30, but both parents are still actively involved in the childrens daily lives, picking the kids up from school, getting them to soccer practice, and the like./p>

Parents who opt for equal time-sharing have come up with many different arrangements, such as alternate two-day periods; equal division of the week; alternate weeks; alternate months; and alternate six month periods.

In some states, legislatures have declared a preference for joint custody. That means the courts are supposed to order joint custody if one parent asks for it unless there is a good reason for not ordering it, according to the American Bar Association, an organization for attorneys, in a book it published about divorce issues, including child custody.

The most common reason for not ordering joint custody is the parents inability to cooperate. Courts are concerned that a child could be caught in the middle of a tug-of-war if joint custody is ordered for parents who do not cooperate with each other.

Childrens needs for each parent change as they grow. Parents probably should avoid locking in any parenting plan forever. Rather, they should plan to review the custody and visitation arrangement as the children grow and the childrens needs change.