When two parents are going through a divorce, there's a lot of unfamiliar legal terminology that gets thrown around. One phrase you've probably heard is "physical custody." But how many people know what that really means in a legal context? It is important that both parents involved understand what these terms are and how they as parents are bound by their custody agreement to their children.
Let FindLaw help you answer the question: what is physical custody?
What is Physical Custody?
In the course of a divorce, your state's child custody laws come into play. A family court judge will determine various aspects of how the division of care for any children will be conducted. The parent who the court determines should have physical custody will be the parent that provides care for the child on a daily basis.
That almost always means that the child will live with the parent that has physical custody.
Most modern custody arrangements give physical custody to one parent (called the "custodial" parent) and grant visitation rights and shared "legal custody" to the non-custodial parent. Typically, visitation rights give the non-custodial parent exclusive time with the child every other weekend, alternating major holidays, and a number of weeks during summer vacations.
In the past, true "joint physical custody" arrangements were more common, in which the child lived with each parent roughly half the time. Today, such arrangements are more rare, and in order to lessen disruption of the child's routine, one parent is usually given primary physical custody of the child.
However, in some situations a parent is given both physical and sole custody. When a court gives a parent sole custody, the parent is given exclusive physical and legal custody of the child.
Sole custody is typically only given when the other parent is found unfit or incapable of taking care of the child. Examples include abuse, drug addiction and criminal behavior.
In the case of sole custody, the other parent may still be allowed some visitation, though it will be much more limited than in a shared legal custody / physical custody arrangement.
Keep in mind; most states prefer awarding joint or shared custody based on the best interests of the child.
What is An Example of Physical Custody?
Example: Mother and Father have divorced, and share legal custody of Child, while Mother is given physical custody of Child. This usually means that Mother and Father share equally in making important decisions concerning Child's upbringing, but Child lives with Mother for the majority of the time. As in most cases where one parent is awarded physical custody, Father is given visitation rights as the non-custodial parent -- entitling him to exclusive time with Child every other weekend, on alternating major holidays, and for four consecutive weeks over Child's summer vacation.
Consulting a Family Law Attorney
Child custody laws are constantly changing. It is important to have a lawyer present for advice and counseling. A child custody lawyer can assist you in obtaining the right physical custody arrangement for you and your child. Child custody laws vary widely by state, and your attorney can help explain your state's rules to you. Most offer free consultations, so your first step should be to contact an experienced family attorney.