Spanish and Vietnamese Speaking Firm

Understanding the difference between legal and physical custody

by | Jan 19, 2023 | Child Custody


As you begin the child custody process in California, you are likely to have many questions. This is understandable, because custody is a complex subject.

When most people think of custody, they assume it means which parent the child will live with, and when. However, there are two different types of custody, and it is important to understand the differences between each one.

Legal custody

Legal custody refers to which parent may make major decisions regarding the child. Major decisions involve educational, medical or religious choices, vs. minor decisions, such as what time the child eats dinner.

You can receive joint legal custody or sole legal custody. Joint legal custody means both parents have equal decision-making power, while sole legal custody awards one parent the ability to make the decisions without the other parent’s permission.

Joint legal custody is awarded in most cases. Courts typically only award sole legal custody if extreme circumstances are present.

A common example is if one parent is struggling with addiction. In that case, sole legal custody could be granted to the other parent, because the parent with the addiction issues is not in a position to make major choices for the child.

Physical custody

Physical custody refers with whom the child resides. You and your co-parent can have shared physical custody, which involves each parent spending approximately the same amount of time with the child.

Alternatively, one parent can be awarded primary physical custody, with the other parent receiving partial physical custody, such as every other weekend.

Custody factors

There are several factors a court examines when making custody decisions that are in a child’s best interest. These factors are weighed against your specific situation.

Talking with a custody attorney about your circumstances can give you a good idea about what type of custody schedule is best for your situation.