Physical Custody vs. Legal Custody: The Differences Explained

  •   |   Meghan Freed

physical custody vs. legal custody differences explained by freed marcroft divorce lawyersThere’s a lot of legal terminology involved in CT child custody — which can make a complex issue even more complex to navigate.  One common area of confusion is the difference between physical custody vs. legal custody.  That’s why we are taking time today to explain the key differences between physical custody and legal custody and provide you with a clear understanding of each concept.  Whether you are a parent considering or in the middle of a divorce with children or a stand-alone custody matter, we share the information you need to make informed decisions when structuring parenting for your children.  So, please read on to learn more about physical custody vs. legal custody in Connecticut!

Definition and Explanation of Physical Custody

Physical custody refers to where the child primarily resides and spends their time.  It involves the daily care and supervision of the child.  In physical custody, the parent or guardian with physical custody is responsible for the child’s routine needs, such as food, shelter, and clothing.  This parent is often called the custodial parent or the parent with primary physical custody.

There are different types of physical custody arrangements.  The most common types are sole physical custody and joint physical custody.  In sole physical custody, the child resides primarily with one parent, while the other has visitation rights.  This arrangement is typically used when the parents cannot effectively co-parent due to a high level of conflict or other circumstances.  On the other hand, joint physical custody involves the child spending substantial time with both parents.  This arrangement allows the child to maintain a close relationship with both parents and ensures that both parents are actively involved in the child’s life.

Read: What Does Child Custody Mean?

Pros and Cons of Different Physical Custody Arrangements

The two main types of physical custody are joint physical custody and full physical custody.

Joint Physical Custody

Connecticut courts prefer joint physical custody over sole physical custody in most circumstances.  This is because, generally speaking, CT’s outlook is that it’s in the child’s best interests to have a meaningful relationship with both parents.  In fact, if the parents agree to joint custody, Connecticut judges presume that’s in the child’s best interests.  Joint physical custody also promotes shared parenting responsibilities and can benefit the child’s emotional well-being.  That said, it requires effective communication and cooperation between the parents, which is challenging in high-conflict situations.

Read: Joint Custody vs. Sole Custody

Sole Physical Custody

“Sole custody” refers to cases where one parent has primary physical custody.  Note that the other parent may still have visitation with their child.  (Some people use the term “sole custody” for times when the non-custodial parent doesn’t have visitation, and “full custody” when the non-custodial parent does have visitation.).  Connecticut courts award sole custody when they find that it is the custody arrangement that’s in the child’s best interests.  For example, when one parent can’t provide a safe home for the child, the judge may award sole custody to the other parent.

Read: Physical and Legal Custody in Connecticut

Definition and Explanation of Legal Custody

On the other hand, legal custody refers to the right and responsibility to make significant decisions on behalf of the child.  For example, these decisions can relate to the child’s education, healthcare, and religious upbringing.  The parent or guardian with legal custody has the authority to make these decisions, often called the “custodial parent.”

Similar to physical custody, there are different types of legal custody arrangements.  The most common types are sole legal custody and joint legal custody.  In joint legal custody, both parents share the authority to make major decisions for the child.  In other words, both parents have a say in important matters.  By contrast, in sole legal custody, one parent has the sole authority to make significant decisions for the child.  This arrangement is typically used when one parent is deemed unfit or unable to participate in decision-making effectively.

Read: Full Custody vs. Joint Custody

Pros and Cons of Different Legal Custody Arrangements

There are also two main types of legal custody: joint legal custody and full legal custody.

Joint Legal Custody

As with joint physical custody, in most situations, Connecticut judges favor joint legal custody over sole legal custody.  Joint legal custody allows children to benefit from both parents’ perspectives and input.  However, it necessitates a baseline ability to communicate between the parents.

Read: What Does Joint Custody Mean?

Sole Legal Custody

In sole legal custody, one parent has the final say in major decisions.  When parents cannot resolve their conflicting opinions, sole custody may be the appropriate alternative to stability for the child.

Read: What Does Sole Custody Mean?

The Role of Settlement and Court in Parenting Decisions

Both settlement and the court play important roles in custody decisions.  Negotiation is often the first step in resolving custody disputes.  One way to settle a custody decision is through the use of mediation.  A mediator is a neutral third party who assists the parents in reaching a mutually acceptable agreement regarding custody and parenting arrangements.  Mediation allows parents to have control over the outcome and promotes communication, compromise, and working together,

If negotiations fail or are inappropriate, the court will make the final custody determination in custody litigation.  The judge will consider the child’s best interests in making their decision.  It is important to note that the court’s primary focus is on the child’s well-being and ensuring that their best interests are met.

Read: Settlement & Divorce

Common Misconceptions about Physical and Legal Custody

Three main misconceptions about physical and legal custody are important to address:

  1. Physical custody determines the parent who makes major decisions for the child: This is incorrect.  Physical custody refers to where the child primarily resides, while legal custody determines who has the authority to make major decisions on behalf of the child.
  2. Joint physical custody means equal time-sharing: Joint physical custody does not necessarily mean that the child spends equal time with each parent.  It refers to the child spending substantial time with both parents, but the specific arrangement may vary based on the child’s needs and the parents’ circumstances.
  3. Sole legal custody means no visitation rights for the non-custodial parent: Sole legal custody does not automatically mean that the non-custodial parent has no visitation rights.  It simply means that one parent can make major decisions for the child.

Next Steps

Understanding the difference between physical custody vs. legal custody is crucial for parents going through divorce or custody disputes.  While physical custody determines where the child primarily resides, legal custody determines who has the authority to make major decisions on behalf of the child.  The specific arrangements and factors considered in determining custody vary in each case in Connecticut, and it is important to consult with an experienced CT family attorney to explain and navigate the law in your particular circumstances.  With a clear understanding of physical and legal custody, parents can make informed decisions that prioritize the best interests of their children. Please contact us to discuss working with Freed Marcroft’s experienced divorce lawyers.

Freed Marcroft LLC

Freed Marcroft LLC