Washington, DC asked in Child Custody for District of Columbia

Q: Is there a difference between physical and legal custody?

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1 Lawyer Answer
Mark Oakley
Mark Oakley
  • Rockville, MD
  • Licensed in District of Columbia

A: Yes, and it's an important difference.

Physical custody refers to the the parent's custodial right to have the child in their care, during whatever time frames the court order directs, or during all times when the other parent is not afforded specific times for visitation/custody with the child. There is sole physical custody, where one parent is the primary custodian of the child, and the other parent is granted periods of visitation (including overnight visitation) with the child; and there is shared or joint physical custody, where the times with each parent may be more equal, or unstated, with both parents having equal custodial rights (or the times may be set forth, like alternating 3 days/4 days, etc.).

Legal custody can also be sole or shared/joint. Having legal custody means that parent has the right to make all major decisions regarding the child's health, education, welfare, religion, upbringing, etc. Even where a court grants one parent sole legal and physical custody and the other parent visitation rights on a set schedule, the court can grant to the non-legal custodian parent the right to participate in certain major decisions affecting the child's health care, education, etc.

The amount of overnight time a parent has physical custody of their child, along with the combined incomes of both parties, largely determines the amount of child support one parent pays to the other.

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