Whiteboard Wednesday – What is Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody?

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Whiteboard Wednesday – What is Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody?

Today on Whiteboard Wednesday, Krista Yancey and Heather Steele discuss the differences between legal custody and physical custody.  Below is the transcript, and scroll down to see a close up shot of the whiteboard.


Heather: Hi everyone! It’s Heather Steele here with Whiteboard Wednesday from Compton & Duling.  I’m here today with Krista Yancey from our Family Law Department, and she’s going to talk a little bit about legal and physical custody, so tell us all about it!

Krista:  Hi everyone! Like Heather said, my name is Krista Yancey and I’m one of the attorneys in our Family Law section.  There are two main kinds of custody in Virginia: legal custody and physical custody.  Legal custody is the ability to make decisions about your children.  So, where they attend school, doctor’s appointments, that kind of thing.  Physical custody is the actual time that your children spend with you.  So, there are pretty much two kinds of legal custody: joint legal custody, and sole legal custody.  Joint legal custody is pretty common, and both parents retain the ability to make joint decisions regarding their children, about those basic things we talked about, about educational, medical, and the like. The court expects that when parents have joint legal custody, they’re actually going to discuss things with each other and make joint decisions. Sole legal custody means that one parent retains that decision-making power.  Physical custody, there are various shades of physical custody, but you probably will hear three main terms: joint, primary, and sole.  Joint physical custody is more like a 50/50 or something like that type of arrangement, where the children spend about half their time with either parent.  Primary is pretty common where one parent will primarily have the children residing with them, so for example, during the school week, that sort of thing, and then sole physical custody, is really where one parent has the kids living with them basically all the time.  The other parent who might not have primary or sole physical custody will often have visitation rights, or what’s more recently being called “parenting time.”  And that non-custodial parent will often have a schedule, for example, they can see their kids on evenings during the week or maybe every other weekend, that kind of a thing.  Heather, do you have any questions for me about custody?

Heather:  I do! So, when you have joint legal custody, what kinds of things do you get to make decisions about? Can I make decisions about where they go to school? Or what kind of after-school activities they have? What does that entail?

Krista:  Sure, yeah, so really the legal custodian is the one signing permission slips, taking the kids to the doctor, and making the main parenting decisions for the children.  Now that’s not necessarily to mean that they shouldn’t involve the other parent in any of those decisions, but when someone has sole legal custody, it means that they have the final say so.

Heather:  Okay and if you have sole legal custody, would you have sole physical custody or you can have kind of a mix?

Krista:  Not necessarily, you can have any sort of arrangement of the two different kinds, so often you will have one parent has sole legal custody, or both parents have joint legal custody, but there’s any sort of arrangement of physical custody.  Often when two parents can’t make any decisions together, one parent might have sole legal custody, but they might share physical custody of the children because both parents are actively involved in the day-to-day lives of their children.

Heather:  And you mentioned the word “custodian,” help me understand what “custodian” means?

Krista:  “Custodian” is kind of a legal word to just basically mean the parent who has custody.  And it doesn’t necessarily mean legal or physical custody, it can mean either one.

Heather:  Excellent! Well, if you have any other questions about legal or physical custody or anything else having to do with Family Law matters, and you’d like an opportunity to talk with Krista, feel free to give us a call! That’s all, I’m Heather and this is Krista with Whiteboard Wednesday from Compton & Duling!  Thanks!

Krista: Bye guys!

Legal and Physical Custody
Up close shot of the whiteboard showing legal custody vs. physical custody