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Primary Physical Custody: What Is It?

If you and your spouse are divorcing, you may have heard your lawyer use the term primary physical custody. What is primary physical custody? Simply stated, primary physical custody means that one parent is more responsible for caring for any child or children in the family. It also means that the child will spend more time with that parent than with the other.

You also may have heard the term sole physical custody. What is sole physical custodyit and how is it different from primary physical custody? Sole physical custody means that the child lives with only one parent. The other parent may or may not have visitation rights. Primary physical custody is used in a shared physical custody situation rather than with a sole physical custody order.

Unlike many of the other terms used to define the custody arrangement, primary physical custody has no true legal meaning in most states. In states where it is a legal term, one parent-the custodial parent- is granted primary physical custody. The other parent may have either some custodial rights or visitation rights.

The state of Alaska uses the following definition for primary physical custody:

"When the children live with one parent more than 30 percent of the year, or 110 or more overnights, and the other parent less than 30 percent of the year, or 110 or fewer overnights."

If both parents have the children for more than 110 nights per year, they have shared physical custody.

Is Primary Physical Custody What's Right for You?

In any divorce, the courts try to rule in a way that is best for the child or children. An arrangement focused on primary physical custody may be in the best interests of the children because they will go back and forth less between two homes.

To determine if primary physical custody is best for a child, a court will look at how parenting occurred during the marriage. For instance, which parent generally took care of the children?

The court also will explore the current and future parenting situation. It will ask questions such as:

  • How have the parents divided the responsibility of caring for their children after the separation?
  • How far apart do the parents live from each other?
  • Is the school system near one parent's house better than the one near the other's? And is transportation to either of these an issue?
  • Do the children participate in after-school activities? Is one parent more able or willing to get the children to and from these activities and be otherwise involved?


If you are involved in a child custody dispute, you can expect the court to ask a lot of questions and gather a lot of information from you and your spouse. The court needs this information so it can make a wise decision. If the court decides that primary physical custody is what is best, your children may benefit from having one main home while getting to spend time with both parents.