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Knowing the Difference Between Legal and Physical Custody and Why It Matters

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Working out custody rights is a stressful and taxing time. You and the courts both want what’s best for your child, but determining that isn’t always easy. When it comes to Tulsa paternity rights, it’s important to know the difference between legal custody and physical custody. As you get ready to make your case before a judge, you’ll want to make sure you’re advocating for the right kind and amount of custody you want.

For the most part, physical and legal custody work in tandem. Joint custody for one will often mean joint custody for the other, and the same is true for sole custody. However, there are times when this is not always true. For instance, a parent may have sole physical custody of a child if the other parent travels a lot for work or is otherwise unable to provide a steady living situation for the child. The parents in this instance may still share joint legal custody of their child. 

Physical Custody

Legal and physical custody often go hand in hand, but it’s important to differentiate between them. Physical custody is often what people associate with family legal proceedings. Physical custody deals with where the child(ren) will live and who they will live with. Courts will usually decide between the options of sole or joint custody.

Joint physical custody means the child will spend a significant amount of the calendar year with each parent. This means extended periods of time, usually half the year or at least one full season. For example, a child may spend the school year with one parent and spend winter and summer break with the other parent.

Sole physical custody means the child will spend the majority of the calendar year with only one parent. The other parent will have specified visitation rights as decided by the court. The visitation rights could be as little as one hour a week to as extensive as every other weekend. But overall, the child is mainly living and situated in one household. 

Legal Custody

Legal custody deals with everything else that comes with being a parent. The right to make decisions about a child’s education, medical concerns, etc., are all part of legal custody. Like physical custody, legal custody is decided between sole or joint custody.

Joint legal custody means both parents will be involved in the decisions regarding the child’s upbringing. The parents will have to come to an agreement on all decisions. No one parent will be able to make a change in the child’s life without the other’s consent. Failure to agree could result in the need for court intervention.

Sole legal custody means only one parent has the right to make legal decisions on the child’s behalf. The other parent may still offer their input and voice their opinion, but they ultimately have no legal say in the outcome. If a parent feels the choice being made is in some way harmful to the child, they may be able to bring the issue before a judge.


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Why This Matters

If physical and legal custody often go together, why does it matter that you know the difference when going through court proceedings to determine custody rights? It mainly depends on what you, as a parent, want in being a part of your child’s life.

You may not be in a position to be physically with your child for half of the calendar year, but that doesn’t mean you should have to give up your rights to make decisions about how they are raised. As a parent, you have the right to know about any medical care your child is receiving and what treatment they should have, if any. You have a say in what kind of school they go to and where. You have an influence on any sort of religious communities they are part of. If you know you won’t be able to get physical custody but still want to be an active part of your child’s life, it’s important to fight for joint legal custody.

While not entirely impossible, it’s highly unlikely that a parent will share joint physical custody but not legal custody. If you want to be a physical, active part of your child’s life but are unable or unwilling to be legally responsible, talk to your lawyer about your options for visitation rights under sole physical custody. If you are amenable and willing to compromise on your legal rights in the best interests of your child, the judge will look more favorably on you when determining visitation time and type.

The decision to have a child and be a part of their life is one of the most important decisions you can make. Having to go through court to ensure that you still get to be part of their life is one of the worst experiences you can go through. But knowing your rights as a parent is vital to maintaining those rights after a divorce or split.
Before going to court, be clear with your lawyer about what rights you want and your willingness to compromise on custody. If you are worried about not getting physical or legal custody, discuss with your lawyer possible visitation rights and ways to stay involved in your child’s upbringing.

Most often, a willingness to be there for your child and an interest in their wellbeing will improve your chances of maintaining your parental rights. If you are in the process of a divorce or split and need assistance in knowing your paternity rights in Tulsa, give us a call today at 918-585-8600. We’re ready to help you get the best for you and your child.