In a custody case, the judge will have to make a decision about two different kinds of custody: physical custody and legal custody. These are two separate and distinct things under the law, and it’s important that you know the difference ahead of time so that you know exactly what you’re asking for when you get in front of the judge.
Legal custody deals with the right of a parent to make three kinds of decisions on behalf of the child: non-emergency medical care, education, and religious upbringing. In almost every case, parents are awarded joint legal custody. Why? Well, the court thinks that, as long as both parents share responsibility for the child, they should both have a say in these important decisions. These aren’t really the day-to-day decisions; these are big decisions that can have a tremendous impact on a child’s upbringing.
Physical custody, on the other hand, deals primarily with where the child actually spends his or her time. This is what, when it comes down to it, custody cases are really all about. Physical custody can come in a number of different forms. There is primary physical custody, shared physical custody, and split physical custody.
Primary physical custody is when the non-custodial parent (the parent who has the child less) has less than 90 days of visitation with the child in any given year.
Shared physical custody is when the non-custodial parent has more then 90 days of visitation with the child in any given year. Shared custody doesn’t necessarily mean that custody is split evenly 50/50, but it’s possible. You should also keep in mind that shared custody reduces the child support obligation for the non-custodial parent. However, if the non-custodial parent has the child for ninety days, he will pay more child support than if he had the child for 182.5 days. Why? The theory here is that, since dad is sharing more of the parenting time, he’s responsible for paying for more of what it costs to care for a child on a day-to-day basis.
Split physical custody is an unusual scenario that, in most cases, a judge will not order because it means that siblings are split up. One parent will take one child, and the other parent will take another. Normally, when split physical custody happens, it is because of a decision the parents made.
You should keep these different kind of custodial arrangements in mind.