When couples divorce, or are not married in the first place, custody is one of the things that has to be worked out. In order to be able to work out a satisfactory custody arrangement, the terms that are used in family court must be well understood. The most important terms to understand are physical custody vs. legal custody as these are often the things that are being fought over.
Physical custody refers to where the child is actually living. You may have a joint physical custody arrangement, which means that the child or children are shuttled back and forth between two households. You may have a primary physical custody arrangement where one parent has the children the majority of the time and the other parent has the children only for visitation. In rare cases, there may even be a sole physical custody arrangement, where one parent is responsible for the children and the other is not even allowed visitation. The first two situations are the most common. In fact, even in many situations where the last situation seems to be the case, it is often because the custodial parent has discouraged visitation to the point where it is nearly impossible for the non-custodial parent.
Legal custody, on the other hand, is an entirely different animal. Legal custody refers to the right to acquire information about your child, in school or from doctors. It also refers to the right to seek medical care for your children. You can have legal custody without having physical custody of your children. In fact, you do not even have to see your children in order to have legal custody. Most couples have joint legal custody by default. However, there are rare cases where a parent petitions for sole legal custody and it is granted, for whatever reason. In those cases, the non-custodial parent has no right to talk to the children’s doctors. They have no right to see the children’s school records or to talk to the teachers. It is very rare that legal custody is taken away from a parent, as it severely restricts their rights regarding their children.
Child custody is one of the most difficult parts of the law to navigate, and many parents entering the family courts for the first time are confused as to what each type of custody means. They may also find themselves being given advice from every front as they attempt to navigate the system, with the most common advice being to ask for everything so that you are guaranteed to get at least half. The problem with this advice when you are talking about the children is that although it is usually true, it also creates an adversarial atmosphere in which the children become nothing but pawns in a much bigger battle.