Knowing the difference between legal and physical custody can help parents understand the options that may be the best fit for their family. Custody decisions should be determined with the best interests of the child(ren) in mind.
What Does Legal Custody Mean?
There are many major decisions that go into raising a child. Where a child will go to school, what religion will be followed, whether the child can participate in a contact sport or if non-emergency medical treatment is needed are just a few of those decisions. When parents have joint legal custody, they have the equal legal authority to make major decisions for their child(ren). A parent can have joint legal custody without having joint physical custody.
Sole legal custody is another legal custody option where only one parent is given the legal authority to make major decisions regarding the child. This custody option may come into play if one of the parents is shown to be unfit and cannot be trusted to make decisions in the best interests of the child.
What Does Physical Custody Mean?
Often referred to as residential custody, physical custody determines which parent the child(ren) will live with most of the time. There are three common types of physical custody arrangements:
- Sole Physical Custody. The child resides with one parent who is considered the custodial parent. This parent is responsible for the day-to-day care of the child(ren). The non-custodial parent is usually given visitation rights that include sleepover nights.
- Joint Physical Custody. Also called shared parenting or shared custody, the children live with one parent for part of the week and then with the other parent for the rest of the week. The time spent at each location is almost equal. Both parents are custodial parents and will often have a custody schedule or parenting plan from the court.
- Bird’s Nest Custody. With this somewhat unique custody situation, the children will live in one central location and the parents will rotate in and out on a regular schedule. This is a child-centered approach that can help ease the transition for the children, especially when they have emotional, medical or mental challenges. This arrangement does require a higher level of co-parenting between parents and the financial ability to maintain three separate residences.