The Difference Between Physical and Legal Custody

Cubes Spelling Child Custody Lying On Family Drawing

Understanding the basics of child custody in Pennsylvania is critical if you’re going through a divorce or trying to hash out an agreement with a co-parent. The family law attorneys at Thomas, Conrad & Conrad handle all types of custody issues and help clients understand their rights and responsibilities while keeping the best interests of children in mind.

What is Physical Custody?

Physical custody refers to which parent the child lives with. However, having physical custody doesn’t necessarily mean that the parent has total responsibility or control over making decisions for the child. Some parents have sole physical custody of their children, but share legal custody with their co-parent. The parent who doesn’t have the children the majority of the time will likely have visitation with them. Parents with joint physical custody usually split time their children nearly equally.

What is Legal Custody?

Although physical custody is important, legal custody gives a parent the right to make certain decisions in the best interests of their child, including decisions regarding:

  • Education
  • Childcare
  • Religion
  • Physical health and medical treatment
  • Mental health needs
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Travel and vacations
  • Residency

Parents with legal custody also have an obligation to carry out their parental duties, which include meeting the physical, emotional, and social needs of the child. Typically, both parents share legal custody. Each parent has the right to make these choices, regardless of where the child lives. When one parent has sole legal custody, they are the only one who has the right to make these decisions.

How Child Custody is Determined

The main objective of any custody agreement is to ensure the best interests of the child are being served. Even if you’re facing a messy divorce or contentious custody battle, it’s good to put your own feelings aside and consider how a custody arrangement will affect your child’s overall well-being and meet their needs. There are many different factors the court considers when awarding physical and legal custody in PA, including:

  • Which parent is more likely to encourage and allow regular, continuing contact between the child and the other parent
  • Any past or present abuse committed by a parent or a member of their household and whether there is a continued risk of harm to the child
  • Daily care and the parental duties each parent performs for the child
  • Continuity and stability in a child’s education, family life, and community
  • Availability of extended family such as grandparents, aunts, and uncles
  • Sibling relationships
  • The child’s preferences, based on their age, maturity, and judgment
  • Whether a parent has attempted to turn the child against the other parent (except in cases involving domestic violence)
  • Who is more likely to provide for the child’s emotional needs by maintaining a loving, nurturing, and stable relationship with the child
  • Which parent is more likely to effectively handle the child’s daily physical, emotional, developmental, educational, and special needs
  • The proximity of both parents’ residences
  • Each parent’s ability to make child care arrangements or their availability to care for the child
  • Each parent’s willingness to cooperate with the other
  • A parent’s or household member’s history of drug or alcohol abuse
  • A parent’s physical and mental condition
  • Other relevant factors, depending on the specific circumstances

In Pennsylvania, physical and legal custody determinations are gender-neutral. This means that no party receives preference based on gender in any custody award.

Why Hire An Attorney For Custody Issues?

Hashing out issues surrounding child custody can be challenging. A family law attorney can provide an objective perspective and help you understand how these decisions are made and how they may affect child support as well. They can also assist with negotiating a custody arrangement or formal mediation. If a reasonable custody agreement can’t be reached, a divorce lawyer can represent you in court and ensure your child’s best interests stay at the forefront. If you’re a grandparent who’s seeking child custody or visitation, it’s critical to seek the counsel of an experienced family law attorney who can evaluate your circumstances and advise you of your options.

Contact A Child Custody Attorney To Learn More

Our experienced and compassionate family law team at Thomas, Conrad & Conrad can help you understand the differences between physical and legal custody in PA and ensure your rights and your children’s interests are protected. Call our Bethlehem office at 610-867-2900 or contact us online to schedule a consultation. We’re proud to serve families throughout eastern Pennsylvania.


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