Custody can be a very emotional issue for parents. Figuring out the best custody arrangements for your children and family is best served when you don’t let the legal terms confuse you. Demystify the difference between legal and physical custody so you can set up the best parenting schedule that works for your family.

By M. Marcy Jones

Sometimes divorcing parents get hung up on the legal terminology surrounding child custody without really understanding it. This lack of understanding can make it harder to reach a lasting and respectful agreement.

The most important distinction is between legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody has to do with who makes important decisions about the children; physical custody has to do with where they live. Either legal custody or physical custody may be awarded as either a joint or shared responsibility or as a sole responsibility to one specific parent depending on the circumstances of the family and what is in the best interests of the child.

Most parents have joint legal custody, which means both parents share responsibility for making important decisions concerning the children. For example, the parents make decisions together regarding where the children go to school, what doctor they go to, what activities they participate in, whether or not they get braces or have surgery, etc.

Sole legal custody means one parent only has the responsibility for the care and control of the children and has the authority to make the primary decisions regarding them. Courts will typically order sole legal custody only when the parents cannot communicate with each other, are unable to make important decisions together regarding the children, or when one parent lives far away and has little contact with the children. For example, if the parents cannot agree on care for the children, such as which school they should go to or what kind of health care they should have, then obviously this is a major issue that affects the children. One of the parents must have authority to make decisions so the children receive the care they need.

Physical custody has to do with where the children live. One parent may have primary physical custody, or the parents may have a shared custody arrangement. Shared physical custody arrangements can be as creative as necessary based on the children’s needs and the parents’ schedules. Children can spend equal time at each parent’s home, or any other time division that works for the family.

Graceful Divorce Solution coverM. MARCY JONES is an author, speaker, lawyer, and advocate for change. She has practiced family law since 1995. She went to Washington & Lee University School of Law after her own divorce and with two young children at home, and has worked as a domestic violence prosecutor and then in private practice. Marcy is a settlement expert and conflict resolution advocate, specializing in collaborative practice. She is also a trained mediator and certified personal coach. She lives in Lynchburg, Virginia. For more information, visit her website at and