What Are the Differences Between Legal and Physical Child Custody?

Creating an optimal child custody scenario that is both feasible for the parents and in the child’s best interest can be hard work. With the coronavirus pandemic altering traditional custody and divorce proceedings, parents have had to adapt to these continuously changing times to abide by local and federal regulations. They must also ensure they are still meeting the custody guidelines set forth by the court. If you are in the early stages of divorce and custody discussions, it is important to understand the various differences between legal and physical custody, and roles and responsibilities for each parent. 

Here, the divorce and child custody attorneys at Rodier Family Law discuss how legal and physical custody differ, and how this will impact your family dynamic as you navigate custody decisions in the future.

Legal Custody Impacts Large Decisions on Your Child’s Behalf

With legal custody, a parent may have sole or joint legal custody of their child. Legal custody refers to the parent’s power to make important decisions on the child’s behalf, regarding areas such as medical care, schooling, counseling and religious upbringing. When you were married, it is likely that you and your spouse made these decisions together. If you have an amicable relationship with your now ex-spouse, pursuing joint legal custody will allow both parties to have a say in these decisions as your child ages. However, with sole legal custody, one parent is now responsible for making these decisions, and does not have to legally abide by the other parent’s requests if they do not believe it is in the child’s best interest. Generally, there are few reasons that a judge will require sole legal custody if not requested by the parents, but the judge may be more willing to award sole legal custody if one parent is neglectful, or lives far away and does not spend adequate time with the child.

Physical Custody Requires Flexibility During This Time

Physical custody is pretty straightforward in concept, however the terms that parties use to define the breakdown of physical custody may vary.  Generally, physical custody refers to who the child lives with on a regular basis. Ex-spouses can have joint (aka “shared”) physical custody, or one parent can have sole (aka “primary”) physical custody.  Typically if one parent has sole/primary, then the child or children spend most of their time living with that parent while the other parent enjoys visitation (aka “parenting time” or “access”).  When parties share physical, or joint, custody, the parties might divide their time with the children equally, they might have a school year and a summer schedule, the children might live with one parent more than the other but still spend considerable time with both parents – there can be multiple factors going into the time that is split caring for the child and parties who reach custodial agreements can be as creative as their circumstances may allow in the best interest of their children.

For example, parents who have joint physical custody and live in the same state or town may choose to switch off throughout the week or alternate weeks.  Parents who reside in different states may choose to split time with their children when school is out of session, or only certain months out of the year.  In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, there have been many changes in regards to custody across the country, especially for parents that live far apart. With differences in local and regional restrictions, travel has been brought to a minimum, and many parents must work to adjust their schedules to benefit their child, without sacrificing quality time with each parent.  Maryland Courts have generally taken the position that the pandemic circumstances in and of themselves do not create an emergency for custody modification purposes and that parties should continue to adhere to their agreements and court orders regarding the children despite the circumstances of the pandemic.

Legal and Physical Custody Decisions Do Not Come Without Disagreement

When considering custody options for your family after going through a divorce, it is important to note that there are advantages and disadvantages to joint and sole legal or physical custody, and working with professional counsel is a great step in helping you discover your best options with access to ample resources. When it comes to joint custody, especially joint legal custody, it is important that you and your ex-spouse have a civil relationship. Additionally, having similar values to your ex-spouse in relation to schooling or medical decisions can make joint legal custody much easier. In the same respect, if you and your ex-spouse continuously disagree on important and/or fundamental items such as these, joint legal custody may cause additional strife, leading to a more difficult upbringing for your child and potential future litigation.  Parties do not have to agree on everything, nor do Courts expect parties to be amicable at all times, but if parties can make joint decisions despite their differences then they may be candidates for joint legal custody.  

If you are choosing to have your ex-spouse in your child’s life in any respect, one of the areas you must continuously work on is communication. In the early stages of custody or divorce hearings, it can be easy to focus on your emotions, and how these hearings are affecting you at the moment. However, you have to realize that these decisions impact your child just as much as you, if not more-so. Putting your child’s needs first, and working with your ex-spouse, a mediator, a parent coordinator, or other professional/s as needed may help your child acclimate to their new daily routine without excessive fear or frustration caused by arguments between his or her parents.

Learn Your Options With the Harford County Custody Attorneys at Rodier Family Law

This year has been a whirlwind, and adding divorce or child custody proceedings on top of it can feel overwhelming. If you are unsure of what your best options are in regards to custody, consider seeking help from the compassionate and skilled team at Rodier Family Law. We understand that every custody case is unique, and make it our priority to create a plan catered to your family’s needs. To learn how we can assist you,  contact our Bel Air office here: https://www.rodierfamilylaw.com/contact-us/