Written by Avvo Staff

Physical Custody vs. Legal Custody

When people think of children and divorce, one of the first things they think of is custody—who gets the kids? However, what many don’t realize is that custody involves more than who the child lives with. There are two types of custody: physical and legal. It's always a good idea to consult with a family law attorney to make sure that you fully understand what types of custody to request.

Physical Custody

A parent who has physical custody is the one the child lives with. Physical custody can come in two forms:

  • Joint physical custody (also shared custody): The child takes turns living with each parent. This scenario works best when the parents live near each other so that the child’s life isn’t disrupted.
  • Sole physical custody (also primary custody): Occasionally two parents do not share custody. Instead, one parent is awarded sole custody, meaning that the child lives with this parent only. The other parent gets visitation rights to the child. States sometimes do not award sole custody unless one parent is deemed unfit.

Legal Custody

On the other hand, a parent who has legal custody has the legal authority to make decisions that affect the child. Examples of these types of decisions:

  • Religion
  • Education: Where the child goes to school and what type of education they receive
  • Medical care

Legal custody can be sole or shared, just like the way it is for physical custody. Spouses who have joint legal custody over their child share decision-making authority, whereas a spouse with sole legal custody has the final say.

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