The difference between physical and legal custody

When parents divorce in North Carolina, they will either set their own custody terms or ask courts to create a parenting plan. Joint custody is the most common solution in divorces since research shows that it will usually be in the best interest of the children.

Provided that both parents are capable of parenting, a judge will need to decide how to split those responsibilities and rights. Even within a shared custody situation, there are countless possible variations in how they structure the final order.

One of the areas in which there is often room for customization is in how a judge determines to split both legal and physical custody between the parents. Let’s look at what each of those involves.

Legal custody

Legal custody is not just parental authority assigned through a court order. Instead, it is specifically the right to make decisions on behalf of the child. Legal custody is what empowers a parent to establish religious practices, make medical decisions contrary to their child’s preferences or make educational decisions for the long-term benefit of their children.

Judges may order parents to share legal custody, or they may determine that the parents with more parenting time as the one who should make most of the decisions.

Physical custody

When you negotiate for more overnight time with your children, it is physical custody that you request. The parent with physical custody has an obligation to meet the needs of children and ensure they fulfill their obligations.

If you have physical custody on a specific day, you have to take the kids to school or get them to medical appointments. Shared physical custody arrangements can range from an even 50/50 split to one parent spending most of the time with their child and the other parent only having occasional, brief visitation.

Your family’s current situation and existing parental relationships will determine how a judge splits custody and which parent they allocate which responsibilities to in the final order. Understanding the language used in a custody order and in court can help you asked for the kind of parental responsibility that you want in your upcoming divorce.

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