Custody and Parenting Plan FAQ

Is physical custody the same as legal custody? What does it mean to have legal and physical custody?

The process of divorce can easily make a parent overwhelmed with all of the details involved in creating and implementing a child custody agreement. There are many things to learn. One of them is understanding the often-confused terms; physical and legal custody.

Let’s a take a look at what the difference is between legal custody and physical custody.

Related Post: Grounds for Full Custody of Child

What is Physical Custody?

Physical custody is the plan for how a child’s time is arranged between the parents. In Pennsylvania, there are a variety of forms of physical custody.

  • Primary physical custody of a child refers to the right to assume physical custody of the majority of the time.
    • Some jurisdictions refer to this as Majority Physical Custody, although this term does not appear in the statute.
  • Partial physical custody refers to the right to have physical custody for less than the majority of time.
  • Shared physical custody is where more than one parent assumes significant, but not necessarily exactly equal, periods of physical custody.
  • Supervised physical custody may be ordered where custodial time and interaction between a parent and a child is monitored by agreed upon designated adults or an agency.
  • Exclusive physical custody of a child is a much more rare form of custody. Sometimes, this is referred to as Sole physical custody. Exclusive and supervised physical custody may occur where there is a determination of risk of harm to the child by one of the parents.

What is Legal Custody?

Legal custody refers to the right to make decisions regarding topics such as health, religious upbringing, and education.

Some common examples of legal custody issues include:

  • Piercing the child’s ears
  • Taking a child for mental health care
  • Allowing a child to have a tattoo
  • Private vs. public school
  • Changing to a nearby, but different, school district
  • Whether the teen is mature enough to be allowed to test for a learner’s permit to drive.

In most situations, it is presumed that both parents possess these rights, even without the presence of a court order. This is referred to as shared legal custody. Interestingly, this is often an area where parents get into conflict by simply failing to consult with each other.

Making unilateral decisions or leaving the other parent out of the discussion is easily viewed as a lack of respect for the role which that parent plays in the child’s life.  Our guidance for clients as child custody lawyers is this test: If I am about to make a decision which I would not want the other parent to make without consulting me, then that is my cue to call the other parent to have that discussion.

What Happens When Parents Can’t Reach Agreement?

When parents cannot reach agreement, it is important to obtain legal advice. There is a continuum of options to seek resolution prior to resorting to litigation. The experienced team of Johnson Duffie family law attorneys can review your child custody matter and help you evaluate private options for decision making such as Mediation, Collaborative Law, and Mediation/Arbitration, as well as evaluate the need for litigation.

Contact our team today to learn more about legal custody vs physical custody or to schedule a consultation.

Author: Melissa P. Greevy, JD
Part of the Johnson Duffie Family Law Team