The Difference Between Legal Custody, Physical Custody, and Parenting Time

Despite the fact that millions of families deal with child custody and parenting issues every year, there is no simple child custody arrangement. Even in situations where the parents have separated amicably and completely agree on who the children should live with and how parenting time should work, there is still the matter of legal definitions and what is best for the children. Historically, because custody matters have been so complicated and are made so much more complex by fighting co-parents, the court has been required to draw some very clear lines as to what custody means and the rights of each parent. These are separated into legal custody, physical custody, and the right to reasonable parenting time.

Unfortunately, the more specific the laws become, the more difficult they are to understand, especially in the context of highly emotional situations. Whether you have been favored by the court, are sharing custody equally, or are facing an every-other-weekend arrangement, it is important to understand the difference between these three types of custody/parenting rights and where you stand in this equation.

Legal Custody

The first category is legal custody and it is a right that the courts rare give to one parent over the other except in extreme circumstances. Legal custody has very little to do with where the child lives but everything to do with the decisions made about their lives.

This is your right to discuss and decide with the other parent major issues such as where your child goes to school, what religion they practice, and major medical decisions should medication, treatment, or surgery become an issue. Legal custody gives you the right to have a say in how they are raised, and influence the values your child is taught. It also gives you a fairly powerful veto power should your ex or another of the child’s guardians make decisions you disagree with.

Physical Custody

The second category, physical custody, is the one that most people associate with the concept of child custody as a whole. Physical custody determines who the child actually lives with and can be granted as sole custody to one parent or joint custody shared equally or near-equally between two parents. In the past, the most well-known examples of  sole physical custody cases are where the children live with only one parent and “visit” the other on a schedule such as every other weekend.  Sole physical custody can still be seen in situations where one parent travels frequently and is not home to share parenting time, or one parent, for whatever reason, is unable to care for a child, or one parent can provide greater home stability.

Joint physical custody, on the other hand, is when children live in both homes for an approximately equal amount of time. This is when parents can communicate well for the most part and both have been actively involved with the children.  It works best when parents live close together or within the same school district.  The schedule can vary from every other week to other schedules where the children are not away from either parent for more than 3 to 5 days.

Parents who live far away from each other (for instance in another part of the state or in another state altogether) are not typically able to share equal parenting time unless they can reach a schedule that is in the best interests of their children.

Parenting Time and Parenting Plans

Parents who want to avoid the custody label can agree to parenting time through a Parenting Plan.  Parenting Plans focus on the schedule that each parent will have and Parenting Plans are where parents can agree to guidelines of how they would like to raise their children in both households.

Child specialists have found that children do better when they can maintain a steady relationship with both parents. It seems to be common sense that children who feel loved and supported by both of their parents, even if the situation is not ideal, are less likely to blame themselves for the divorce and more likely to stay out of trouble as they enter their teens and young adulthood.

Whether you are in a situation as the custodial parent, non-custodial parent, or sharing joint custody with your ex, it is important to know where you stand legally in each aspect of custody and parenting time. Even if you live far away from your children as the non-custodial parent, you probably still have the right to make important decisions about your child’s rearing and with modern technology, your parenting time can include methods like video chat. If you want to discuss how custody or parenting may be impacted in your divorce or if think that your custody rights are being violated or would like to change your current custody agreement, contact us today. Our team of divorce and custody law attorneys are here to help.