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Legal custody and physical custody: Understanding the differences

On Behalf of | Dec 26, 2019 | Family Law |

If you have a child with a former partner and are hoping to get custody, you need to consider a key question: What type of custody? Because the term is often used as a catch-all, referring to many parental rights, many parents don’t really consider the question.

But knowing what type of custody you are after, and the rights it gives you, is crucial to achieving the parent-child relationship you’re aiming for.

Legal custody: The basics

Generally speaking, there are two types of child custody here in North Carolina. First is legal custody. This is the right to make certain major decisions about a child’s life, such as where they might go to school, what type of medical treatment they receive or whether they are brought up according to a certain religion.

If you have sole legal custody (also called primary legal custody), you can make these choices without discussing it with the other parent. If, however, parents have joint legal custody, then they have to talk about these major decisions and reach a resolution together.

Physical custody: The basics

The second type of custody is physical custody. This refers to the right of a parent to have the child in their care, as well as scheduled visitation time with the non-primary parent. Just like legal custody, a court can grant a parent primary physical custody, meaning the child lives with them most of the time.

Joint physical custody means the child spends a significant amount of time with each parent. While this does not mean the time is an equal 50-50 split, the arrangement should ensure each parent has regular contact with the child.

Determining child custody

Separating parents will be given an opportunity to come up with a custody arrangement on their own. If they can’t agree, however, the court will make a decision for them. The judge in the case will base their decision on whatever is in the best interests of the child.

Navigating this turbulent time can be challenging. As a parent, you want to protect your relationship with your child. When a legal or physical custody arrangement doesn’t seem to be doing that, it may be time to consider additional options.


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