Difference Between Physical and Legal Custody in California

Custody is often separated into two very distinct areas. These areas are Physical Custody and Legal Custody. They are separated because they are different concepts or issues.

Physical Custody

Physical Custody is related to where the children will live. It is about which parent will have actual physical custody of the children.

Physical Custody can be granted to a single parent as Sole Physical Custody or Joint Physical Custody can be granted to both parties.

With Sole Custody, it does not mean that the parent without custody does not see their kids. Short of issues with physical, emotional, or substance abuse, the non-custodial parent is granted parenting time, also called visitation. This enables the parent to be able to spend a certain amount of time during the week, on weekends, for holidays, and for vacation time with their children even though the kids do not officially live with that parent.

With Joint Physical Custody, both parents are entitled to significant periods of time with their kids. The total time would be as close to equal as possible under varying circumstances, such as school, extra-circular activities, and summer activities.

Legal Custody

Legal Custody has to do with who is able to make legal decisions for the kids related to health, education, religion, and the overall welfare of the child.

As with Physical Custody, this can be granted to one parent as Sole Legal Custody or to both parents as Joint Legal Custody.
As these two things are different, if a parent has sole physical custody, that does not mean they will have sole legal custody. It is often the case where physical custody is granted to one parent with legal custody being granted jointly.

Tracy Duell-Cazes is a certified family law specialist, recognized and licensed by the California State Bar and has held this certification since 2002. Tracy is well-versed in the areas of physical and legal custody and will work with you to ensure that each of these areas, as well as parenting time, if applicable, is granted in a way that is acceptable to you and all involved. Tracy works in all areas of family law. Call our office at 408-267-8484.


1530 The Alameda, Suite 108
San Jose, CA 95126

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