Divorce is messy.  When the parties have children together, it can make the divorce proceedings even more complicated.  Creating a workable custody arrangement that benefits both parties and looks out for the best interests of the children is one of the most important issues that needs to be addressed.  To understand how to create an effective custody plan, it is important to understand the difference between legal custody and physical custody.

Legal custody is the right and obligation of a parent to make the critical life decisions that affect the upbringing of the child(ren).  These decisions include general health care decisions, educational decisions, religious decisions, and other important decisions.  For example, parents with legal custody have the right to determine where their child will attend school.

Physical custody is a different combination of rights and obligations altogether.  The parent who has physical custody is the parent with whom the children live and who supervises them. In many cases, it is impractical or difficult to have the children split time living equally in each household, so one parent may be designated as having primary physical custody.

In fact, technically the Family Code only provides for joint or sole legal custody and for joint or sole physical custody, not for “primary” custody.  As a result court orders often say that one party shall have physical custody during certain times and the other party shall have physical custody at all other times.

Many parents get confused in divorce proceedings by misunderstanding the issues of legal and physical custody.  On top of that, they misunderstand the distinctions between joint and sole custody, physical or legal.  We will discuss the differences between joint and sole custody more in a future blog.

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