Most parents, upon divorce, want custody of their child or children. The bond between a parent and child is special, and it’s natural to want to protect it, even as life itself shifts beneath your feet.

Yet the single term “custody” does not fully capture the unanswered questions at the center of your parenting future. Critical to moving forward is understanding the difference between legal and physical custody, and how each might impact your connection with your child.

Legal custody: The basics

Legal custody has little, if anything, to do with how much time a parent will get with their child following the divorce. Instead, it is all about helping to shape the child’s life.

Legal custody is the right to make major choices about the child’s care. That includes:

  • Education and schooling
  • Religious upbringing
  • Non-emergency medical care preferences

In many cases, divorced parents have joint legal custody. This means they must communicate and work together in order to come to an agreement about these things.

If the court awards one parent sole legal custody, then that parent can make these choices unilaterally.

Physical custody: The basics

Physical custody (sometimes referred to as residential custody) is all about the child’s living situation. It refers to which parent has the responsibility of supervising and caring for the child at any one time. Similar to legal custody, a judge may grant joint or sole physical custody.

If divorced partners have joint physical custody, then the child spends about 50% of the time with each parent. If sole physical custody is awarded, the child stays with one parent the majority of the time. That parent is the custodial parent, while the other – the non-custodial parent – gets visitation.

These are separate considerations

Legal custody and physical custody are separate matters. You may share legal custody with your child’s other parent, for example, but be awarded sole physical custody based on what is in the child’s best interest. In addition, there are factors that can significantly complicate matters, requiring creative resolution strategies to sort out.

As you work through these conversations, it’s important to keep your goals aligned with the legal reality. Make sure you are asking for the arrangement that allows for the type of relationship you want to maintain with your child.