In divorces that include children, there seems to be a misunderstanding, if not a total unawareness, of the difference between physical and legal custody. Moreover, when the term “joint custody” is added to the equation, many get lost in the wording. This article will hopefully help you understand the difference between legal custody and physical custody.

When legal custody is awarded to a parent, it refers to their ability or power to make decisions on behalf of the child. These decisions could regard the child’s religious upbringing (obviously you cannot force your child to believe in something, but can persuade them towards one), medical requirements, and their education (private school, public school, homeschool, etc.). In essence, legal custody gives the parent the authority to make decisions for the child that impact the child’s life directly. Obviously, this is a very important role, and the parent awarded this custody should be of very sound mind, and one who is a good decision maker.

Physical custody is much different and is much easier to understand. Put bluntly; physical custody is simply a determination of which parent the child will spend the most time with. This, in turn, decides which parents the child will most likely be living with for the majority of the time.

And because it is very uncommon that one parent will be satisfied with having little to no time at all with the child, we have what is known as custody battles. Sometimes, the court decides on joint custody, which attempts to balance the time spent with the child or children. However, regardless of how equal the time awarded to each parent may appear to be, one parent will always have more parenting time than the other, and by law, this parent will have physical custody of the child. And the parent that is awarded physical custody is also entitled to receive child support, regardless if the decision-making responsibilities are shared between the two parents.