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The difference between legal and physical custody after divorce

Seeking custody or parental responsibilities in a California divorce is often the biggest focus for parents ending their marriages. No one wants to wind up isolated and alienated from their children, so parents often invest a lot of time and energy into securing the custody outcome that they imagine will best protect the relationship with their children.

It is commonplace for the California courts to split custody between divorcing spouses, although such a split isn’t necessarily 50/50. One parent may have more time with the children than the other. It’s also possible that one parent may ask for and get more decision-making authority than the other.

Understanding the difference between legal and physical custody can help you negotiate for favorable custody terms.

Physical custody is what most people think of during divorce

Some states refer to physical custody as parenting time or residential responsibility. Physical custody orders determine whom the children stay with and which parent has an obligation to meet the basic needs of the children on a specific day.

For example, during your physical custody time, you may have to go pick your kids up from school if they fall sick in the middle of the day. Additionally, if you have the work during your custody time, it is usually your obligation to either make arrangements with your ex or secure professional child care.

Getting a fair share of physical custody is important to your parent-child relationship, but it is far from the sole concern. You also want to ask for a portion of the legal custody over your children.

Legal custody can sometimes be more difficult to share

Physical custody terms are often clear-cut, with parents knowing exactly when they need to drop off or pick up their children. The same isn’t true of legal custody. Legal custody refers to authority or the right to make decisions on behalf of the children. Legal custody can impact everything from religious observances and academic decisions to health care and socialization.

It can be difficult to share legal custody, especially if you and your ex don’t agree about your approach to parenting. However, asking for shared legal custody helps protect your interests in the way your children grow up, not just the right to be there as they grow.

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