The difference between legal and physical child custody

When a parent is in the throes of a child custody dispute, the process will activate a lot of strong emotions and fears. No one wants to think about the idea of not being able to live with his or her children full time. However, that's exactly what could be on the line in the average child custody disagreement.

Ultimately, the court will award different types of child custody to one or both parents, or the parents will settle their custody disagreements out of court. Either way, it's important for parents to understand the various types of child custody so they know what to strive for.

Here are the two kinds of child custody distinguished by the state family law courts:

Physical custody

When a parent has full physical custody, the child will live with him or her full-time, and that parent's home will be the child's primary residence. In many cases, however, physical custody will be shared and the child will essentially have two homes. For example, the child might live Sunday through Wednesday with one parent and Thursday through Saturday with the other parent.

Legal custody

When a parent has full legal custody, the parent will have the authority to make all decisions on behalf of the child regarding health care, religion, schooling, extracurricular activities, sports, hobbies and more. This type of custody is separate from who the child lives with. As such, a parent might have no physical custody and only visitation rights, but joint legal custody. Here, the child might not live with the parent, but the parent will maintain equal authority in making important decisions about the child's life and rearing.

Before you agree to a child custody agreement, make sure you understand exactly what kind of custody arrangements you're signing up for by taking the time and effort to understand your issue in the context of state child custody laws.

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