What is Physical Custody?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 21 January 2020
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Physical custody is a form of child custody in which a parent has the right to live with the child, as well as the responsibility of caring for the child on a day to day basis. This is distinct from legal custody, which involves the right to be a part of decisionmaking for a child who may or may not live with the parent in question. When custody agreements are reached as part of a divorce or separation, one of the issues at hand will be the question of what kind of custody to extend to the separated partners.

In sole physical custody, only one parent has physical custody, although visitation rights may be extended to the other parent. If one parent has been abusive, the court may restrict any kind of contact to prevent further abuse. More commonly, however, joint custody is awarded, with the parents sharing physical custody rights. The terms of this agreement can vary; parents may switch off every other week, the child might spend summers and holidays with one parent, or other arrangements can be made.


Joint physical custody can be hard on children, because they may have to travel back and forth, and this can cause strain. As children grow older, scheduling issues can arise; for example, the child might want to stay with a parent who is closer to school in order to make it easier to attend sports meets and after school events. One option for some families is so-called "bird's nest custody," in which the child stays in the family home and the parents rotate in and out to provide care and spend time with the child.

A parent who has physical custody rights is known as the custodial parent. Non-custodial parents usually still have legal custody, and thus must be involved in major life decisions about the child. For example, if the custodial parent wants to move, the non-custodial parent needs to be notified and consulted. Likewise, the non-custodial parent is involved in making decisions about schooling, medical issues, and other matters of importance, including issues like which church the child attends and how the child should be disciplined.

It is possible to make changes to a custody agreement. While the agreement usually spells out the terms of the custody schedule, these can be adjusted to accommodate changing needs. Likewise, if problems emerge, such as questions about the ability of one custodial parent to care for the child, the custody agreement may be altered to address these issues. Before physical custody rights can be suspended altogether, it is usually necessary to demonstrate that the parent in question cannot provide care or is a danger to the child.



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