What Are the Kinds of Child Custody?

People often talk about getting custody of their child, but there are really two types of child custody, and it is important to understand the distinction between them.

First, there is physical custody. Physical custody is what everybody thinks of when they think of custody. It is the custody associated with having the child live with you. Often one parent or the other has primary physical custody, sometimes called sole physical custody, and the other parent has visitation, sometimes called access. In this situation, the child will live with the custodial parent full time, or nearly full time, and will have visitation with the other parent.

Other times, the parents will share joint physical custody. In this situation, the child will live with both parents, shifting back and forth on a schedule, and each parent will consider that the child lives with him or her part of the time. No visitation is necessary in the situation of joint physical custody because the child lives with both parents for a substantial part of the time.

Second, there is legal custody. Legal custody is less well-known than physical custody, but it is equally if not more important. Legal custody is the authority to make important decisions affecting the child. Common decisions that may require legal custody are the religion of the child, where the child goes to school, whether the child is allowed to travel abroad, whether the child obtains braces, whether the child plays high school football, etc. Each of these decisions is important, parents may disagree on them, and legal custody is necessary to guarantee the right to make the decision.

Often one parent or the other has sole legal custody and may make the decision without any input from the other. Other times, the parties share joint legal custody. In the situation of joint legal custody, the parties must consult with one another and reach a mutually agreeable decision on each important issue that arises. Obviously, the ability to communicate and reach shared decisions is necessary for joint legal custody to work.


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