Understanding the two categories of child custody

Pennsylvania laws on child custody can be confusing to you because the terms are similar to those used in much of the rest of the country. For example, according to the Pennsylvania Code, the term “custody” is an inclusive one that includes different categories.

The two main categories of child custody are physical custody and legal custody. There is a distinction between the two. Not understanding the distinction could affect your relationship with your child in ways you do not expect.

Physical custody

Physical custody is what many people think of when they hear the term “custody.” It refers to where the child lives and how much time he or she spends with each parent. There are also different subcategories of physical custody.

Shared physical custody in Pennsylvania is the same as joint physical custody in other states. It means that the child spends almost equal amounts of time with each parent. Another common arrangement is primary physical custody, meaning that the child spends the majority of his or her time with one parent over the other. Pennsylvania law makes a distinction between primary physical custody and sole physical custody.

Legal custody

Legal custody is your authority to make important decisions on your child’s behalf regarding matters such as education, medical care and religion. Legal custody can be sole, meaning that one parent bears all the responsibility for making such decisions, or shared, meaning that both parents bear the responsibility equally.

Unless there is a very good reason to restrict one parent’s decision-making authority, it is common for parents to share legal custody equally. This is true even if the court grants your ex-spouse primary physical custody of the child.


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