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What’s the difference between legal and physical custody?

On Behalf of | Jul 2, 2024 | Child Custody

All divorces have their specific touchpoints and areas of concern – but divorces between the parents of minor children can become especially contentious when custody is an issue.

Ideally, the courts always hope that divorcing parents will put aside their differences and manage to hash out a custody arrangement that prioritizes the best interests of the children – without going through litigation. To do that, however, parents first need to understand how custody actually works.

Parental rights are far more complicated than most people realize

Virginia (as well as most other states) recognizes two different types of custody involving minor children: physical and legal custody.

Physical custody is sometimes called “parenting time,” and refers to the amount of time the child lives with each parent. It’s not unusual to have parents share physical custody more or less evenly, with the children rotating between homes every other week. 

However, it’s also not uncommon for parents to divide physical custody in other ways. For example, one parent may have the children every weekday during the school year, while the other parent gets physical custody of the children on the weekends and during summer vacation. Virtually any parenting time split is possible, including sole physical custody.

Legal custody, on the other hand, refers to a parent’s ability to exercise control over various important aspects of their child’s life. A parent with legal custody has the power to make decisions over a child’s education, religious upbringing, extracurricular activities, medical care and more. 

Physical custody and legal custody do not automatically get divided the same way. A parent who only has physical custody of their child 30% of the time, for example, may still have 50% of the decision-making authority, or legal custody, over that child. One parent may enjoy equal parenting time with the other but have no legal custody for some reason.

Because many parents find custody issues to be a terrifying aspect of their divorce, it is easy to get overwhelmed. Experienced legal guidance can help you separate fact from fiction and get the custody you need to protect your child – and your rights as a parent.