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What is the difference between legal and physical custody?

When parents divorce or separate, custody can quickly become a highly charged issue. It's common for both parents to want sole custody of the child, but it's important to understand exactly what that means. Most people know that joint custody means that both of the parents share custody and sole custody means that one parent had custody, but it's common to be confused about the differences between legal custody and physical custody and how these affect visitation.

Legal custody refers to who has the authority to make decisions for the child. This include religious, medical and educational decisions, which are three areas where many parents disagree after a divorce. In joint legal custody arrangements, the parents are supposed to try to reach an agreement on these decisions if possible. If not, the case goes before the courts, and the judge will make a decision.

Physical custody determines who the child lives with. Generally, if a parent is granted sole legal custody of the child, the parent will also be granted sole physical custody. However, it is possible for parents to have joint legal custody and one parent be awarded sole physical custody.

In most cases, both parents will see the children even under a sole custody arrangement. The courts recognize that, barring extreme circumstances, it is in the best interests of the child to have frequent contact with both parents. This means that even in a sole custody arrangement, the noncustodial parent will most likely be awarded some type of visitation schedule. Those who have questions about existing custody arrangements or an ongoing custody dispute can talk with a family law attorney to learn more.

Source: FindLaw, "Sole Custody," accessed July 23, 2015

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