Family Law

Child Custody: What is the difference between Legal and Physical Custody?

Black and Davison

If you are faced with a dispute over the custody of a child, there are two primary questions you must ask yourself: 1) do I want to obtain legal custody of the child, and 2) what type of physical custody am I seeking?

In Pennsylvania, legal custody is defined as the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including, but not limited to, medical, religious and educational decisions.

It is possible for a parent or caregiver to have sole legal custody of a child, or to have shared legal custody of him or her. The former is defined as the right of one individual to exclusive legal custody of the child, whereas the latter is defined as the right of more than one individual to the legal custody of the child.

Pennsylvania judges consider four factors before awarding shared legal custody: (1) both parents must be fit, capable of making reasonable childrearing decisions and willing and able to provide love and care for their children; (2) both parents must evidence a continuing desire for active involvement in the child’s life; (3) both parents must be recognized by the child as a source of security and love; and (4) a minimal degree of cooperation between the parents must be possible.

Physical custody is the actual physical possession and control of a child. There are several different types of physical custody: (1) sole, (2) primary, (3) shared, (4) partial, and (5) supervised.

Sole physical custody is the right of one individual to exclusive physical custody of a child, without any other parent or caregiver being given the same rights. By contrast, primary physical custody is defined as the right to assume physical custody of the child for the majority of the time.

Shared physical custody, on the other hand, is defined as the right of more than one individual to assume physical custody of the child, each having significant periods of physical custodial time with him or her. If a parent or caretaker has partial physical custody, it means that he or she has the right to exercise physical custody of the child for less than a majority of the time.

Finally, there is supervised physical custody, which is defined as custodial time during which an agency or an adult designated by the court or agreed upon by the parties monitors the interaction between the child and the individual with those rights.


Before you sit down with an attorney to discuss these options, think about what type(s) of custody you wish to seek. As you do so, keep in mind that, when it comes to deciding child custody matters, judges in the state of Pennsylvania are tasked with determining what is in the best interests of the child, which includes the child’s physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual well-being, among other factors.

Send us an email or call our office to arrange a meeting to discuss your child custody issues. Evening and weekend consultations are available upon request.

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