What is the Difference Between Legal and Physical Custody?
There are two different types of child custody:
1. Legal Custody
A parent who has legal custody of a child is able to make key decisions in the child’s upbringing. They have the legal right to decide core issues such as the child’s education, religious upbringing, home life, or medical care. In Virginia, the courts regularly award legal custody to both parents so that they share in the decision-making.
While joint legal custody is preferred, it is not always feasible. For instance, a parent whose actions are detrimental to the child, may face legal consequences or lose custody. To gain sole legal custody, the court will need to be convinced that joint custody is not in the best interest of the child.
2. Physical Custody
Nearly 13 million parents in the U.S. live with a child under the age of 21, while the other parent lives elsewhere. In a divorce, physical custody is often a point of contention because both parents want as much parenting time with the child as possible. Joint physical custody is ideal if both parents live close and can share the child equally.
In many cases, one parent is designated as the custodial parent; meaning, they have primary custody of the child. The other parent is given visitation rights based on a custodial arrangement or a court decision.
Factors Considered in Establishing Custody
When establishing a child custody arrangement, both parties or the court must take several factors into consideration:
- Age and mental condition of the child
- Age and mental condition of the parent
- Relationship between the parent and child
- The needs of the child
- Best interests of the child
- The willingness of each parent to support the relationship of the child with the other parent
- The willingness of each parent to cooperate and resolve disputes
- History of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse
Once custody has been established, there may come a time when a major life change may warrant the modification of an existing arrangement. The proposed modification must be due to a “substantial” change of circumstances and must be in the best interest of the child. Situations that may be considered substantial include loss of a job, relocation, changes in lifestyle/home environment, or instances of abuse or neglect.