Family law in Pennsylvania is more complex than many people realize. For example, quite a few people, even those who have actually been through a divorce or who witnessed the divorce of their parents, may not really understand the different kinds of child custody.

The kinds of child custody in Pennsylvania include legal custody and physical custody, which have nothing to do with how the state divides those forms of custody, commonly in a parenting plan. Sole or shared custody rights reflect which parent has physical and legal custody rights.

Whether the parents set up their own parenting plan before filing for divorce or the courts rule on how to divide up parental rights and responsibilities, the final documents will likely need to address both the physical and legal custody of the children in the family.

Legal custody refers to the authority of decision-making power

The term legal custody may confuse some people, but it is actually a relatively straightforward concept. Parents assume legal responsibility for their children and the authority to make important decisions on their behalf until the child becomes an adult. A newborn child, for example, cannot consent to medical treatment. A 3-year-old cannot make a decision about what religion is right for them, nor can a 10-year-old decide the best kind of education for their future.

The parents use their legal authority to make decisions in the best interests of the children. Married couples often have to discuss various issues carefully before making final decisions. Divorced parents have to defer to the parenting plan and the designation of parental authority in the form of legal custody.

In a divorce, the courts can choose to split decision-making power between both parents or to allocate it only to one parent. In the cases with shared legal custody, the courts may give one parent control over certain areas, like education and faith, and the other parent decision-making power in other parts of the child’s life, like medical decisions. Other times, the courts will expect that the parents will cooperatively work together to make decisions about the child’s religion, health care and education.

Physical custody involves who shelters and cares for the child

When people talk about splitting up custody, it is typically physical custody that they fixate on. Physical custody refers to the parent with the responsibility for providing food and shelter to the children at any given time.

During your physical custody period, you may need to leave work early if your child gets sick during the day, as it is your responsibility to care for them. You will need to provide the children with all the basic necessities of life during your physical custody time, which you will likely split with your ex.

Sharing both legal and physical custody is common, so it’s best for you to start thinking of ways to make shared custody easier on everyone in your family now.