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What is the difference between legal and physical child custody?


One of the first questions parents in Minnesota may have when they decide to divorce is who will have custody of their child. Custody, however, is more complicated than just deciding where the child will live.

According to Minnesota law, child custody falls under two umbrellas. The first is "legal custody." Legal custody consists of the right to make key life decisions with regards to the child. For example, decisions about where the child will go to school, which doctor the child will see and what religion the child will practice are all decisions made by the parent or parents who have legal custody.

If the parents share joint legal custody, they both have the responsibility for making these decision. If a parent has sole legal custody, he or she alone can make these decisions. It is often the case that parents will share joint legal custody.

"Physical custody," on the other hand, consists of where the child lives and involves the ability to make routine day-to-day decisions concerning the child, for example, what the child will have for dinner and when the child will go to bed. If the parents share joint physical custody, the child's daily care and living arrangements are divided between each of the child's parents. For example, the child might live with one parent during certain days of the week and with the other parent other days of the week.

If a parent has sole physical custody, the child will reside with that parent and the other parent may have visitation rights. For example, the child could live with one parent, while the other parent has visitation with the child one night a week and every-other weekend.

In the end, child custody decisions in Minnesota must be made in a way that serves the best interests of the child. Every family's dynamic is different, so each child custody case will be different. In the end, it is important that the child's custody situation is one that allows him or her to grow and thrive in a healthy and happy environment, even if the child's parents are no longer in a relationship with each other.

Source: Minnesota Judicial Branch, "Child Custody & Parenting Time," Accessed Jan. 2, 2017

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