Understanding Legal Custody and Physical Custody in California

California couples who are getting a divorce will want to have a major say in how their children are raised. That can often lead to a child custody dispute. Even in cases where the couple is amicable and able to hash out their differences without a great deal of vitriol, it is still not unusual for there to be concerns about a child’s living arrangements and which parent will be the primary custodial parent.

Understanding the two kinds of custody orders that the court can issue is an important part of these cases. Two kinds of custody can be awarded. They are legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody regulates which parent will be the final decision maker of all the key decisions about the child including medical care, how he or she is educated, and the child’s welfare. Physical custody is which parent the child will reside with.

There are two types of legal custody. With joint legal custody, the parents will split the responsibilities and decide on how best to care for the child. Sole legal custody means that one parent will oversee all the decisions. If a parent has legal custody, he or she can decide on the following: childcare; schooling; which religion is followed and how; mental health and therapy the child might get; which medical professionals for the child’s basic needs are used; what sports the child will play; how he or she will spend time on vacation and in various activities; when and where the child will travel; and where the child will reside. When parents share legal custody, it is not required that they agree on every decision. It is likely preferable for the parents to have a hand in the decisions to avoid rancor.

With physical custody, it can be joint custody or sole/primary custody. Joint custody means the child lives with both parents. Sole/primary custody means the child lives with one parent most of the time with visitation granted to the other parent. The child will not be required to spend the same amount of time with each parent. In general, the child will be with one parent more than the other. The parent with the child for the greater amount of time is generally called the primary custodial parent.

It is better for the child and the parents to be agreeable about child custody issues and negotiate willingly with flexibility. However, that is not always possible. Knowing the law and how it defines the various alternatives for child custody and support is essential. Having legal assistance regardless of the situation is also important and the parents should make certain they understand their rights from the beginning.

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