What are the definitions of legal and physical custody?

When a couple with children decides to divorce, decisions will have to be made regarding the custody of their child. Yet did you know there is a difference between legal custody and physical custody?

Per Massachusetts law, legal custody can be either sole or shared. In a sole legal custody situation, just one parent retains the ability to make key life decisions on behalf of the child. This includes decisions regarding medical care, education and religion. In addition, they are responsible for the child’s moral and emotional development. If parents share legal custody, they are both responsible for these decisions and both must be involved in making them.

Physical custody, however, is different than legal custody. Like legal custody it can be either sole or shared. However, physical custody refers to where the child lives and which parent is responsible for supervising the child. In sole physical custody situations, the child lives and is supervised by just one parent and the other parent receives reasonable visitation rights, unless doing so would not serve the child’s best interests. Shared physical custody means that the child resides and is supervised by one parent some of the time and the other parent the rest of the time, allowing the child to have continuous and frequent periods of time with each parent.

Understanding the various types of custody is important when parents divorce. When the court makes child custody decisions, each parent has equal rights, except in the case of misconduct. In the end, the welfare and happiness of the child will be the basis of any custody order. This includes determining how the child’s living conditions, both before and after the divorce, will affect the child’s health — mentally, emotionally, physically and morally. Parents with further questions about child custody should research their legal options, to ensure they can reach a fair custody agreement.

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