top of page

Legal Vs. Physical Custody: How Are They Different & What Do They Do?

There are two kinds of child custody:

1. Legal custody specifies who makes important decisions for your child(ren) such as health care, education, and welfare.

2. Physical custody specifies who your child(ren) lives with.

Legal Custody

Legal custody can be either joint or sole.

Joint custody gives both parents the shared right and responsibility to make important decisions about the health, education, and welfare of the children.

Sole custody gives only one parent the right and responsibility to make important decisions about the health, education, and welfare of the children.

Parents with legal custody make decisions or choices about their children’s:

  • School or childcare

  • Religious activities or institutions

  • Psychiatric, psychological, or other mental health counseling or therapy needs

  • Doctor, dentist, orthodontist, or other health professionals (except in emergency situations)

  • Sports, summer camp, vacation, or extracurricular activities

  • Travel

  • Residence (where the children will live)

When parents share joint legal custody, both have the right to make decisions about the above aspects of their children’s lives. Certain areas such as schooling, religious activities, doctors, and area of residence usually have to be agreed upon by both parents. Other areas such as childcare and travel usually only require that one parent notify the other and they are then free to do as they wish during their own custodial time.

For the optimal well-being of the child(ren), it is paramount that both parents learn to communicate and cooperate with one another - especially when making significant decisions such as these.

It's important to note that if consent or notification was ordered by the court for any particular scenario, failure to do so could put a parent in contempt of court.

Physical Custody

Physical custody can be joint or sole/primary.

Joint custody means that the children live with both parents.

Sole or primary custody means the children live with one parent most of the time and usually visit the other parent.

Joint physical custody does not mean that the children must spend exactly half the time with each parent, but rather that the child spends significant time with both parents. A parent is called the "primary custodial parent" if they have the children more than 50% of the time.

It is important in either circumstance for parents to follow court orders and to exercise their parental rights. Not only does it benefit the children to have as much meaningful parental involvement as possible, but it benefits parents in knowing what their children are doing and what's going on in their lives.

Common Concerns

We're frequently asked things along the lines of:

“How am I supposed to do anything when my kids live so far away?” and

“How am I supposed to do anything when the other parent doesn’t keep me in the loop?”

The answer is simple: Stay involved to the best of your ability, exercise your parental rights, and take advantage of the custody you do have.

If you have joint legal custody, reach out to your child's school or daycare to get any information you'd like to have.

Set up weekly email updates with their teachers to get a fuller picture of how the week went for your child(ren). Ask if all assignments were completed, if any awards are being earned or could be earned (and especially if there are any upcoming award ceremonies), if the child(ren) seemed to have any difficulties that week, etc.

Stay up to date on all medical information. Know your child(ren)’s doctors and upcoming appointments. Request appointment reminders from their healthcare providers to ensure you're kept in the loop.

If your child(ren) is/are involved in sporting events, show up & support them! Do not wait for your other parent to include you - it is truly not their job.

Call your child(ren), text your child(ren), stay involved & stay active in their lives - even when you're not physically with them.


If you are wish to seek specific custody orders or have questions about the custody orders made in your case, book a consultation with us so we can assist you!

Here at Wells-Gibson Family Law, our attorneys have ample experience with obtaining or defending against specific custodial requests & we would love to help make your best-case scenario a reality as well!


bottom of page