What Is the Difference between Legal and Physical Custody?

New Jersey courts recognize two types of child custody: legal custody and physical custody. The two are not interchangeable. Under each category, legal and physical custody can further be broken down into multiple different custody arrangements. Also, child custody arrangements vary from family to family.

Knowing more about different custody terms and what they mean under the law will help you make informed decisions for your child’s best interests.

Legal Custody

Legal custody is the right to make decisions for the child, including decisions about their education, medical care, and religious upbringing.

Joint legal custody. The term joint legal custody means both parents have input in these decisions. When coparents share legal custody, they both have access to the child’s academic records, medical records, and other important documents. Legal custody has nothing to do with where the child lives. Parents who live on opposite ends of the country can share legal custody.

Physical Custody

A parent who has physical custody of their child is responsible for their day-to-day care. It is their right and obligation to care for the child every day, and for the child to live with them primarily.

Shared physical custody. Like legal custody, parents can also share physical custody. In fact, that is preferred in cases in which both parents are capable, willing, and eager to be engaged in their child’s life. However, because it is not always in the best interests of the child to be continually shuttling back and forth between homes, the courts will generally designate one parent as the primary physical custodian and give the other parent secondary physical custody.

Primary physical custody. With this arrangement, the child’s primary residence will be with the parent who has primary physical custody, and the child will spend time with the other parent according to the visitation schedule agreed on in their parenting plan. It is important to remember that this arrangement is not always a reflection on who is the better parent. It is more of a way to give the child a sense of stability, continuity, and a place to call home.

Structuring Parenting Time

Essentially, parenting time is the time a parent spends living with their child. The schedule a family adopts for parenting time is important because it can impact the relationship the child has with each parent.

Decisions about custody and parenting time should always focus on what is best for the child and evolve as their needs change over time, always encouraging healthy and consistent interactions with both parents. Research shows that children benefit from frequent contact with both parents.

Visitation schedules should also allow for frequent quality time with the non-custodial parent without disrupting the school week or preventing the child from developing relationships with their peers and becoming involved in the extracurricular activities that is a part of a well-rounded childhood experience.

The hope is both parents will agree on the big issues and work together to maintain a parenting schedule that helps their child thrive at every age and stage of development.

Can Couples Decide Custody and Visitation Without Going to Court?

The answer depends on the relationship the ex-spouses have with each other.

Many divorced parents, or coparents who have never been married, have an amicable relationship and are willing to put pride and past resentments aside to focus on the business at hand: deciding what is best for their child.

Parenting plans can be as simple or complex as parents desire. Some coparents have a level of understanding and flexibility that does not require a highly detailed agreement. Others want every detail in writing to prevent confusion and disagreements.

Parents can work with the assistance of their respective divorce lawyers to create a parenting plan that checks every box and meets their child’s needs, while offering both parents plenty of time with the child.

Once parents mutually agree on a parenting plan, it is presented for the court for approval. If the judge agrees the plan makes sense and is best for the child, they will sign off on it, making it official. This option is ideal because it offers the most input for both parents, reduces conflict, and saves time and money.

Custody and Visitation for Parents Who Cannot Agree

Physical and legal custody of minor children are often some of the most contentious points of divorce. Most parents will agree nothing is more important than their child’s welfare, but divorced parents may not always agree on that that means. That is where heated custody battles come into play.

A custody battle is a legal fight between unmarried parents over who will take care of the child. Unfortunately, this fight can get quite ugly and quite expensive. If parents cannot agree on a parenting plan, particularly where and with whom the child should live most of the time, those decisions will be left for the courts to decide.

What Does a Judge Consider When Determining Child Custody?

A custody arrangement will significantly impact the child’s life. For that reason, child custody decisions are not taken lightly by the courts. The judge considers a wide range of factors to ultimately decide which parent can better meet the child’s needs and who should receive primary custody.

Some of those considerations include the following:

  • The age and number of children in the family
  • The coparenting relationship, how the parents cooperate and communicate
  • If the parents can provide a stable and healthy home
  • Where each parent lives and their proximity to each other
  • Which parent is seeking primary physical custody and their relationship to the child
  • If the child has siblings, and the nature of their relationships
  • If there is a threat of substance misuse, domestic violence, emotional abuse, and other safety concerns in the home
  • The child’s preference if they are old and mature enough to understand the dynamics at hand

To sum up all these considerations, the judge’s job is to determine what is best for the child and create the custody arrangement that best reflects their best interests, above all else.

How to Modify a Custody Arrangement in New Jersey

Once a child custody plan is determined, there may be a need to make changes at some point in the future. Changes in a parent’s job schedule, a move, or a remarriage may necessitate a revised parenting schedule.

The child’s needs may change as well. For example, as children enter the teen years, their peer relationships become more important. Parenting plans may be revised to ensure youngsters have time to socialize in healthy, age-appropriate ways as they get older.

In New Jersey, there are two ways to modify a child custody order: through parental consent or by filing a motion. Minor changes can usually be made if both parents mutually agree the revised plan is best for the child. They would update the parenting plan and present it to the judge, who will sign off if they approve.

If one parent wants a change and the other does not, the parent who wants the change files a motion with the court to modify the child custody order. To prove their case, they need to show there has been a substantial change in circumstances that warrants a change in child custody.

Skilled Legal Guidance Is Essential When Navigating Child Custody Matters

The assistance of an experienced and dedicated divorce lawyer is invaluable for any parent dealing with complex custody matters. The right lawyer understands New Jersey custody laws, listens to their client’s concerns and goals, and advocates for the welfare of the child first and foremost.

Somerville Child Custody Lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. Handle Complex Custody Matters to Protect the Child’s Best Interests

As stated, it is important for parents who are divorced to understand the forms of child custody so that decisions can be made in the child’s best interest. If you have questions about legal and physical custody, the Somerville child custody lawyers at Lyons & Associates, P.C. are here to help. We will answer your questions and provide exceptional legal guidance for all divorce matters. To learn more about our approach or to schedule a free consultation, call us at 908-575-9777 or contact us online. Located in Somerville and Morristown, New Jersey, we proudly serve clients in Somerset, Woodbridge, Morristown, Parsippany, Rockaway, Short Hills, Chatham, Randolph, Madison, and Morris Plains.