Legal Custody vs Physical Custody title

Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody: Know the Difference

When navigating the Missouri family law system, you may be confused about the difference between legal custody & physical custody. Find out everything you need to know here.

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Summer Masterson-Goethals
Masterson Law
(417) 522-1280
1771 S. Fremont
Springfield, MO 65804

Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody

When negotiating your parental rights, you want to be well-advised and informed about the differences between legal custody and physical custody. Whether you were married to the other parent or not, many aspects need to be settled when you decide to go your separate ways. Probably the most important is whether to share joint legal custody of the child or children.

Legal custody and physical custody are the two primary types that the court addresses. Basically, the primary decision-making rights and responsibilities fall under the category of legal custody. Even a parent residing in a different state than his or her child takes part in making important decisions that affect the child’s life when they are awarded joint legal custody.

Issues involving child custody can be difficult and emotional. In Missouri, the court requires a written plan detailing how these responsibilities are going to be shared. Consulting with a knowledgeable family and divorce lawyer can help you navigate this complex family law matter and provide peace of mind as you move forward.

Key Differences Between Legal and Physical Custody

The key differences between legal & physical custody regard the division of responsibilities, including where the child resides and who makes the important life choices for him or her. The types of decisions included when referring to legal custody are the ones that have a significant impact on their life, such as:

  • Child’s education including choice of school
  • Childcare
  • Choice of doctor
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Legal decisions
  • Mental health care decisions
  • Non-emergency medical care
  • Religious upbringing

Legal custody refers to major decisions affecting the child’s education, health, and welfare. All day-to-day and emergency choices are the responsibility of the parent who has physical custody of the child at that time.

Physical custody is what most people consider “custody.” It is the physical time that each parent spends with the child. When a custody arrangement is made, it should be written to respect each party’s school, travel, and work schedules to reduce future conflicts.


The Difference Between Joint Legal Custody vs. Physical

The primary difference between joint legal vs. physical custody is where the child predominantly resides.

Joint physical custody refers to when the child lives part of the time with one parent and part with the other. Even in cases where this type of joint custody is awarded and parents share equal parenting time, the judge will require one parent to assume primary physical custody to which legal, medical, and school documents would be mailed. That parent would then have “primary physical custody” while the other parent would have “secondary physical custody.”

What Are the Types of Child Custody?

There are several types of child custody in Missouri, including joint legal custody, sole legal custody, joint physical custody, and sole physical custody. The typical type of legal custody is joint, where both parents work together to make decisions that benefit the child rather than putting their own wishes first.

The less common option is when one parent is granted sole legal custody to make all essential decisions regarding the child. This may be due to any of the following:

  • Remote residence of one parent
  • Significant history of abuse
  • Significant history of neglect
  • Untreated mental health problems
  • Untreated substance abuse

There may be other reasons the judge or a parent decides that the parent’s ability to provide a safe and secure influence makes it impossible to share legal custody. Child custody issues can be revisited as each party’s situation changes.

Allowing the parents to share joint physical custody is also the more popular option for a parenting plan. This enables the child to enjoy equal time with both parents, which can be challenging to navigate for families with busy lifestyles. Therefore, it is optimal to remain flexible and keep the lines of communication open and amicable.

A parent may be granted sole physical custody if the other parent exhibits the behaviors or lifestyle choices that would result in a judge deeming them unfit to provide a safe environment. Documentation and witness testimonials are often required to obtain this type of custody.

A reputable lawyer will provide legal services to help you settle all child support and joint custody issues through the courts.


What Are the Different Custody Arrangements?

Depending on your situation and the court’s determination, several different custody arrangements might work for your family. Although Missouri courts prefer to award joint legal custody, the judge will hear evidence and determine the outcome if parents cannot agree upon a reasonable parenting plan, especially if issues such as the following are involved.

  • Conviction of a violent crime
  • Domestic abuse
  • Fundamental differences and inability to negotiate

Missouri courts follow the best interests of the children when deciding custody matters. If the parents can’t agree, the courts will step in and let the judge decide. Although each case is different, the judge will consider several factors when determining who would be the child’s primary caregiver. For example, parents’ mental and physical health would be considered as well as which parent is more likely to respect other parent’s visitation rights and allow meaningful, frequent and continuing contact with the other parent.

Unless there are mitigating circumstances, joint legal custody will be awarded. Plus, as changes to the family dynamic occur, changes can be made to the custody cases as needed through the court.

Your Guide to Custody and Visitation

A reputable Missouri divorce attorney can guide you to a custody and visitation arrangement that will be right for your family. Many courts prefer parents share custody even if the child’s primary residence is in one location in the custody agreement.

Often, however, one parent will seek sole custody either due to legitimate reasons or basic vindictiveness. If the courts grant one parent sole legal custody and sole physical custody, it is because the other parent cannot provide a stable influence to the child.

In those cases, the other parent may have visitation of a specified length while the primary parent has physical custody most of the time. Sometimes, visitation must be supervised, per the court order. This occurs either at the courthouse or at a court-approved area where a family member or court-appointed administrator supervises the visit. Your family law attorneys can assist with this.

What You Should Know About Legal Custody and Physical Custody

You should know several things about legal custody and physical custody when planning your custody arrangement. For example, you may be unsure of how joint physical custody works or what would be in the best interest of your child. Fortunately, the court requires a detailed parenting agreement documenting how the custody of a child is to be managed. This limits confusion and arguments later.

Since legal vs. physical custody decisions are complicated and stressful, understanding the process and what options are available can help. Contact a divorce attorney from the law firm of Masterson Law for legal advice and a initial consultation.