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How does legal custody differ from physical child custody?

The term "child custody" is deceptively complex. Many Californians primarily associate child custody with where a child lives after his parents go through a divorce. However, custody entails much more than just where a child spends his time.

The California courts provide a good explanation of the difference between the two major forms of custody in the state: legal custody and physical custody. Physical custody is the form of custody that covers where a child physically spends his time. A custody order can dictate joint physical custody to both parents or sole physical custody to one parent.

Parents who share custody in a joint arrangement do not necessarily get equal time with their children; custody will take into consideration the best interests of the child. When one parent gets sole custody of a child, the other parent is usually granted rights to visit the child based on a visitation provision in the custody order. However, the parent with visitation rights must obey the tenants of the order and return the child to his primary physical custodian as established by the court.

The other form of custody is legal custody. Legal custody concerns which parent has the rights to make decisions about a child's well-being. These important decisions can concern schooling, medical treatments and religious practices. As with physical custody, parents can share legal custody of a child or one parent can be granted the exclusive right to make such decisions.

Custody orders in California can take on many forms. In each case, however, the deciding court will weigh many considerations that evaluate how to reduce the impact of the split on the child's life. The best interests of the child are paramount to establishing good child custody orders and therefore individual deliberations will be made in each case to address the unique aspects of each divorce.

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