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What’s the difference between legal and physical custody?

On Behalf of | Oct 13, 2022 | Custody & Visitation, Family Law |

California parents starting the custody process are likely to have many questions. A custody order or agreement can contain complex language or unfamiliar terms, and it is important you understand what each term means.

Unless you have gone through the custody process before, you might assume that “custody” means only which parent your child is with and when. However, California, like most states, recognizes two types of custody: legal custody and physical custody.

Legal custody

Legal custody involves who makes major decisions about your child. Courts commonly award joint legal custody.

Joint legal custody means that you and your co-parent have equal power when it comes to making major decisions. Major decisions mean things like medical care and education.

Decisions such as going to the park on the weekend or visiting a certain friend’s house are not considered major decisions, and parents do not need to receive permission from each other to make these types of minor decisions.

Courts can sometimes order sole legal custody, which means one parent has the power to make all major decisions. However, this usually only happens rarely, in situations involving extraordinary circumstances.

For example, if your co-parent is in prison for an extended period, you might be awarded sole legal custody because they are not around to make decisions.

Physical custody

Physical custody is what most people think of when they hear the word “custody.” Physical custody refers to whom you child lives with and when.

Your physical custody schedule is determined by several factors, all designed with the best interest of your child in mind. It is assumed that a shared physical custody schedule is in a child’s best interest, because they can spend an equal amount of time with each parent.

However, sometimes one parent is awarded primary physical custody, meaning they have the child more than 50% of the time, while the other parent is granted partial physical custody.

You and your co-parent are always free to arrange your own physical custody schedule based on what works best for both of you. If you cannot come to an agreement, a custody judge decides for you.

Leaving the decision up to a judge is not always the best option. A custody attorney can not only represent your interests in court, but help you work toward a solution that works for everyone.