What Is the Main Difference Between “Legal” and “Physical” Custody of a Child?

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Moving through a divorce or breakup is never easy, but for Colorado couples who share children, the process can be even more complicated. Child custody matters are very emotionally charged, which is to be expected, since most parents love their kids above all else. Understanding your options can make it far easier to navigate a child custody case, and partnering with a great team of child custody attorneys is a good place to begin.

The following information is offered in the hopes of assisting parents as they begin to explore how their parenting arrangement will look like after a breakup or divorce. Just as no two couples are ever exactly alike, child custody can also be customized to suit the needs of all parties, especially the children at the heart of the matter.

What is physical child custody?

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The term “physical custody” refers to the person who has the right to determine where the child resides. This is sometimes referred to as the custodial parent. Having physical custody means you have the right to have your child sleep under your roof for the majority of time, although it’s important to understand that most custody arrangements will allow the other parent to have overnight visitation.

In some cases, one parent is given “primary physical custody” and the other parent is given “secondary physical custody.” It is also possible for parents to fully share physical custody, although it is difficult to create a schedule by which the allocation of parenting time is truly equal.

In cases where the parents live far apart, a long-distance parenting plan will need to be put into place. Families decide how to structure these arrangements based on the age, needs, and preferences of the child. In general, when one parent has primary physical custody and has the child in their care throughout the school year, the other parent can expect to receive longer visits over the summer and during holidays.

What is legal child custody?

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The term “legal child custody” refers to the person who has the right to make decisions about a child’s daily life. These decisions might include things like who their pediatrician is, whether they get braces, if they can take dance lessons, and where they can enroll in school or summer camp. It essentially hands over all the decision-making that couples normally do for their child to one parent.

Very often, legal custody is awarded on a joint basis. This means parents will have to work together to make decisions about their child’s health care, education, and activities. Even when one parent has primary physical custody of the child, the courts will often allow joint legal custody to ensure the noncustodial parent still has the ability to actively participate in guiding the path of their child’s life.

Why seek joint custody if my ex and I get along well?

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Many people hate the thought of negotiations, even when the focus is on something as important as maintaining an active role in a child’s life. When couples decide to go their separate ways with no animosity, that can be a wonderful beginning of a strong and healthy co-parenting arrangement. That said, things change, and not looking after your parenting rights at the beginning of a custody matter can really come back to haunt you down the road.

Think about it like this: at one point you and your former partner felt a great deal of love and care for one another, and hoped the bond would last forever. Then things changed, and it became apparent that the relationship had an expiration date. Child custody matters can also shift and change over time, so the best way to move forward is to ensure you will always have the right to spend time with your child and play an essential role in shaping his or her life.

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One of the most common ways that parents shift from a friendly co-parenting arrangement to a tense and highly charged standoff is when one or both parents move on to form new romantic bonds. Bringing a new partner into the mix changes the dynamics, and that can quickly disrupt an existing parenting flow.

New partners might even have their own kids and custody arrangements, and may want to alter your existing structure to ensure all of the kids are in the same place at the same time (or in some cases, not in the same place at the same time). Legal custody can also become complicated, such as when a new partner needs to relocate for work and wants the child to change schools or move to a new town.

In short: if you structure your parenting arrangement to be as close to equal as possible from the start, it is far easier to defend your physical or legal custody standing in the event something changes in the future. While few parents want to sit down with an attorney to formalize an agreement that is currently working just fine, this is truly the best way to prevent or mitigate future struggles, according to cossittfamilylaw.com.

How do I know when to reach out to a child custody attorney?

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As soon as you know your relationship with your child’s other parent is not going to work out, it’s wise to schedule a meeting with a child custody attorney. If you are married and considering divorce, the information gleaned during an initial custody meeting can help you decide how to move forward.

Unmarried parents should also reach out to a child custody attorney when it becomes clear that living together as a family is not going to be a lasting solution. Some parents don’t decide to break up until their kids are teenagers, while others conceive a child without ever being in a committed relationship, and need to work out custody arrangements while the child is still an infant. Interactions with an attorney are confidential, so there is no need for the other parent to know you are exploring your options.

It’s never too soon to begin meeting with a team of skilled child custody attorneys. Going in to the process with information about your options and the likely outcomes can make it far easier to move closer to a resolution that works for everyone. It’s also important to note that not all child custody negotiations are hostile; there are many cases where parents work together to reach an agreement that places their shared child as the central focus, and only need legal guidance to put that agreement in writing and file it with the court.