Understanding the Different Types of Child Custody: Legal, Physical, Joint, and Sole

For divorcing couples who have children, the issue of child custody represents the most significant legal issue to be resolved. Questions about where the children live, how decisions are made about their welfare, and how much time each parent will be able to spend with the kids often loom far larger and carry more emotional weight than issues of asset distribution or support. If you are working through a divorce, here’s what you need to understand about legal custody, physical custody, and the differences between joint and sole custody.

Legal custody is the responsibility and authority to make decisions about where a child will go to school, what type of medical care they will receive, the role of religion in the child’s life, and whether they will participate in sports, clubs, and other extracurricular activities. Legal custody can be shared between the two parents, referred to as joint legal custody, or can be the responsibility of just one parent, with the other parent having no say in these major decisions. This is referred to as sole legal custody.

Physical custody is the question of where a child will spend their days and nights, and who is responsible for their day-to-day care. As is true of legal custody, physical custody can be shared, maintaining a residence with both parents based on an agreed-to or assigned schedule, or a decision can be made for sole custody, where the child spends most or all of their time with just one parent, with the non-custodial parent having visitation rights or parenting time unless there is a valid reason for that not to be the case.

Decisions about whether joint custody or sole custody are based on what is in the best interest of the child. Where joint custody is assigned, the parents must work collaboratively, maintaining open communication and working to encourage strong relationships with the other parent and extended family. Where sole custody is assigned, it is often an indication that the other parent is considered unfit or unable to fulfill the role of parent. This may be due to a history of neglect, domestic violence, substance abuse, or another issue. The non-custodial parent may be allowed to visit the child, but the primary responsibility for the child will remain with the custodial parent.

If you are anticipating going through a divorce or need help navigating the process, our experienced attorneys can help. Contact us today to set up a time for us to meet.