If you have children and are facing a divorce, you are likely concerned about child custody arrangements. While it is often the most emotionally charged part of divorce, informing yourself before meeting with an attorney can help calm your nerves and prepare you for the discussions ahead.

When it comes to custody, most people aren’t aware that there are two types of custody agreements: physical and legal. Here we’ll look at what each type of custody entails and why one parent may be granted both – or neither.

The most important thing to keep in mind regarding custody is that the court makes decisions that are in your child’s best interests.

The Difference Between Physical Custody and Legal Custody

Most people are familiar with the concept of physical custody. It determines who the child lives with the majority of the time and should be decided based on the parent’s ability to meet the child’s everyday needs.

When a couple divorces, they may be awarded joint physical custody of a child, meaning that the child spends an agreed upon amount of time with each parent. There are a lot of possibilities with physical custody that still allow the child(ren) to see both parents.

Legal custody has to do with making major decisions that impact the child’s life such as their schooling, extracurricular activities, medical care, and religious instruction. Courts typically prefer to grand joint legal custody to match physical custody agreements, but there are a few reasons a judge would grant sole legal custody to one parent. Even if you do not have physical custody of your child(ren), you likely still have legal rights. Sole physical custody with joint legal custody is a fairly common arrangement.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways that physical and legal custody can be awarded and the arrangements do not necessarily influence each other. (Although as we’ll discuss, sole legal custody usually comes with sole physical custody.)

When Sole Legal Custody Can Be Awarded

In the state of North Carolina, sole legal custody can be awarded to one parent when the other parent has a history of child abuse/neglect or substance abuse problems. In this case, the parent with sole legal custody is responsible for making decisions that pertain to the child. The other parent has no legal right to be involved in deciding what is best for the child.

If sole legal custody is awarded, it is likely that sole physical custody will also be awarded.

Legal and Physical Custody in Summation

  • Legal custody involves making major decisions on matters that impact the child(ren) such as schooling and medical care.
  • Physical custody determines where the child(ren) live.
  • Joint legal custody means that both parents have a say in major decisions that impact the child.
  • Joint physical custody means that the child(ren) splits time between both parents.
  • Sole custody means that one parent has both physical and legal custody of the child. The other parent may have visitation rights, but does not have any legal or custodial rights.

Contact Irons & Irons, P.A. for Assistance Navigating Your Child Custody Case

Child custody isn’t something you should have to go alone. Schedule your confidential consultation with a compassionate divorce lawyer by filling out our contact form or calling us at 252-212-3000.

Gib Irons

Gib Irons is the managing partner at Irons & Irons P.A., a law firm in Greenville, NC specializing in divorce, family law, and personal injury litigation. Irons focuses on maintaining a select client roster to ensure personalized attention and exceptional service. His goal is to manage cases efficiently while reducing the stress that often accompanies legal disputes. A local graduate of J. H. Rose High School, Irons went on to earn his BA from Pepperdine University and his JD from Cumberland School of Law at Samford University. He has been practicing law in North Carolina since 2006, offering client-based service, particularly to high-net-worth individuals aiming for prompt and favorable case resolutions.