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The difference between legal and physical custody

On Behalf of | May 13, 2024 | Family Law |

Child custody is a critical aspect of family law, and understanding its various dimensions is crucial for parents and guardians. Two of the most important concepts in child custody are legal and physical custody, which have distinct meanings and implications.

What is legal custody?

A parent who has the right and responsibility to make important decisions about the child’s upbringing is the one with legal custody. This includes choices related to:

  • Education: Deciding which school the child will attend, whether homeschooling will occur or if the child will receive special education services.
  • Health care: Making decisions about the child’s medical, dental and mental health care, including choosing health care providers and consenting to treatments.
  • Religion: Choosing the child’s religious upbringing, if any, and deciding whether the child will participate in religious education or ceremonies.
  • Extracurricular activities: Deciding which extracurricular activities the child will participate in, such as sports, music lessons or clubs.

A parent with legal custody can access their child’s school and medical records. The court may award joint legal custody, where both parents share these responsibilities, or sole legal custody, where one parent makes these decisions solely.

What is physical custody?

On the other hand, physical custody pertains to where the child resides and who takes care of them daily. Parents with physical custody are responsible for the following:

  • Food: Providing meals and ensuring the child has a balanced diet.
  • Shelter: Providing a safe and stable home environment.
  • Clothing: Providing appropriate clothing for the child’s needs and activities.
  • Daily care: Managing the child’s daily routine, including waking up, going to school, doing homework and going to bed.

In a joint arrangement, both parents can share legal and physical custody. Although they share the responsibilities and rights of custody and decision-making, it does not necessarily mean equal time with the child.

Prioritizing the child’s overall well-being

Exploring the ins and outs of child custody can be challenging, but prioritizing the child’s well-being should be the top priority. Effective co-parenting, open communication and a willingness to compromise are key to successful custody arrangements, whether joint or sole. By understanding the distinctions between legal and physical custody, parents can make informed decisions that put their child’s best interests first, fostering a healthy and happy upbringing.