Physical versus Legal Custody

Physical versus Legal Custody

In North Carolina, the child custody law is governed by North Carolina General Statute § 50-13.1, which states: “Any parent, relative, or other person, agency, organization or institution claiming the right to custody of a minor child may institute an action or proceeding for the custody of such child, as hereinafter provided.”

The term physical custody, in its most simple form, means where and with which parent the child is going to be living. Generally, there are two common types of physical custody arrangements that may be awarded: primary or joint.

When one parent has primary physical custody, that means that the child is primarily residing with one parent while the other parent has some form of visitation. One example of the primary physical custody arrangement is the child residing with one parent while the other has visitation every other weekend. When a joint physical custody schedule arrangement is entered, that means that both parents are splitting the time with the child on an equal basis, or close to it. A commonly seen example of the joint physical custody arrangement is the child residing with one parent one week and the other parent the next week.

Legal custody has a very different meaning from physical custody. Legal custody refers to which parent has the ability to make major decisions for the child. For the purposes of legal custody, major decisions for minor children often involve decisions related to health, dental, education, sometimes religion, and extracurricular activities. An example of a major decision related to education would be one that is based on whether the minor child attends private school versus public school. An example of a major decision related to health would be whether or not a child is prescribed glasses or certain medications.

It is very common for an order to state that no matter who has decision-making authority, the parents must communicate with one another about the major decision to be made on behalf of the minor child, and attempt to agree on a major decision for the minor child.   In some cases, a judge may order that if the parents have a good faith conversation and are still unable to come up with an agreement, one parent is able to make the final decision.

Please contact one of our attorneys at Jetton & Meredith to assist you with any case involved the custody of a child.  

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