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What's the difference between physical custody and legal custody?

It can be tempting to think of child custody is a generic term, but in reality it has two distinct forms that divorcing parents need to take into account when creating a divorce settlement agreement or when contesting the matter in court. In Massachusetts these are legal custody and physical custody.

What is physical custody?

Physical custody refers to the location where the child will live. Physical custody can be joint in nature, meaning that the child will spend time with each of them on a periodic basis, or it can be sole physical custody, in which the child's residence will be with only one parent (and be subject to visitation rights by the other parent).

What is legal custody?

Legal custody is distinct from physical custody and that it has to do with the parents legal ability to participate in significant decisions on the child's behalf. These can include subjects such as medical care, education, and even religious considerations. Similar to physical custody, legal custody can be joint or sole custody.

The types of physical and legal custody that result upon finalization of the divorce depend heavily on the specific facts of each case. Most importantly, the ability of the parents to cooperate with each other will play a key role in the determination of whether joint or sole custody is most appropriate and beneficial to the child.

This post is meant for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice. If you are going through a divorce, particularly a contentious one, retaining the assistance of a family law attorney can be instrumental in securing an outcome that best protects your interest while simultaneously keeping in mind the overriding consideration of the best interests of the child.

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