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The difference between physical and legal custody, with examples

Parents often talk about having joint custody as if that's a blanket term that addresses everything having to do with the kids. That's not how it works. For fathers going through divorce, it's wise not to make any assumptions.

Maybe you and your wife were together for 10 years. You got married right before your first child was born -- that pregnancy pushed you into the marriage -- and then you had another child three years later.

Now you're splitting up. It's not exactly what you wanted, but you're determined to make it work. You want the kids to be the main focus. You want to preserve your relationship with them.

To do it, you need to understand exactly what physical and legal custody look like. These are two specific areas that define your rights -- and your ex's rights.

Essentially, it boils down to decision-making power and time spent with the children. Physical custody has to do with that time and the living situation. This is often what people are really talking about when they refer to "having custody" in general.

For instance, you could get joint custody of your kids. You both live near their school and their friends, so the children spend one week with you and then one week with their mom. Every Sunday evening, you make the switch.

Or your ex could get main physical custody, meaning she has the kids living with her every week. You're not entirely cut out. You get to come visit for dinner on Wednesdays and you get the kids every other weekend. You still have custody rights, but they're not divided perfectly evenly.

Legal custody focuses on that decision-making power. If you're given legal rights, you get a say in your child's life and the critical decisions parents make. Examples could include:

  • Are your children going to get vaccinations?
  • What other types of medical care will they be given?
  • Where are your kids going to go to school?
  • Are your kids going to grow up in any specific religion? If so, where will they go?
  • What sports and other activities are they allowed to participate in?

If you and your wife were still together, you'd make these decisions jointly. Since you're not, having legal custody keeps you both in the loop.

One thing to remember is that custody can get split up unevenly on both ends, and it doesn't have to look identical. For instance, maybe you only have physical custody every other weekend, but you still get full legal custody at all times.

Custody disputes can grow long and complicated. It is very important for fathers to know exactly what rights they have and what the custody decisions mean for their future relationships with their kids.

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