Child Custody: What is Legal v. Physical Custody

Legal custody refers to your decision making authority regarding your children, such as choice of school, child care, medical care, religious instruction, extra curricular activities and other major decisions.  Unless one parent is unavailable to participate in these decisions, or has problems with anger or substance abuse, legal custody will usually be shared. This means that the parents are expected to discuss these issues between themselves and seek to find an agreed upon result that is in their children’s best interest.  When the parents cannot agree, then the decision can be made by the court.


Physical custody refers to how you share time with your children.  The best plan considers the children’s schedules and the children’s best interest.  It also considers the schedules and circumstances of the parents.  Unfortunately, other issues sometimes prevent parents from agreeing to a parenting plan.  Sometimes the issues are matters of parenting style.  For example, one parent lets the children play after school and the other has them do homework before allowing them to play. These types of style issues can be fairly easy to resolve.  Other times the issues are not so easy.  For example, some parents try to use time with the children to increase or decrease a child support order.  Other parents will use the children to try and punish the other parent for some real or imagined wrong doing.  Either way, these reasons are inappropriate and the best interest of the children is to have time with both parents on a schedule which makes sense under the circumstances of the case.

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