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What is the difference between legal and physical custody?

On Behalf of | Oct 21, 2023 | Family Law

The Judicial Council of Georgia explains that the law allows married parents equal rights to their children, but in unmarried situations, the law gives rights only to the mother unless the court orders otherwise. For this reason, it is incredibly important for both parents to understand all aspects of custody.

Something commonly misunderstood is the difference between legal and physical custody.

Legal custody

Legal custody pertains to the authority to make important decisions regarding the child’s life. These decisions encompass various aspects, such as education, healthcare, religion and general well-being. When one parent has legal custody, they possess the right to participate in the making of these significant determinations.

Legal custody can be sole custody where one parent has the exclusive authority to make legal decisions for the child. The other parent may still have visitation or parenting time, but they do not participate in legal decision-making. It can also be joint legal custody where both parents share the responsibility for making major decisions about the child’s life. This includes collaboration on education, healthcare and other substantial aspects of the child’s upbringing.

Physical custody

Physical custody refers to where the child resides and who is responsible for their daily care. This aspect addresses the child’s living arrangements and which parent provides a home, shelter and daily supervision.

Physical custody can be sole custody where the child primarily resides with one parent, while the other parent typically has visitation rights. The parent with sole physical custody is the custodial parent, and the other is the noncustodial parent. It may also be joint custody in which the child divides their time between both parents’ homes. This arrangement strives to create a balanced living situation for the child, ensuring they spend substantial time with each parent.

It is important to note that legal and physical custody are separate ideas. A parent with sole legal custody may share physical custody, and vice versa. The specifics of child custody arrangements can vary greatly depending on the unique circumstances of each family.



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