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What is the difference between legal and physical custody?

28402964_S.jpgIn judgments of divorce involving custody matters, custody is generally awarded to the parties in two separate ways: legal custody and physical custody. For example, the custody order may say that both parties share joint legal custody of a child, while one party retains sole physical custody. So, what exactly does this mean?

The term legal custody refers to a parent's right to make important decisions on behalf of a child for such things as the child's health, education, and welfare. If both parents are awarded joint legal custody, it is important for them to attempt to work together to make appropriate decisions for their children in this regard. 

If parents are unable to work together and continually make conflicting decisions, the court may be called upon to change legal custody to only one parent instead.  Alternatively, the court may require the parties to attend mediation to help resolve any disputes.

The term physical custody refers to whom the child is actually with from day-to-day. If one parent has the child in his or her care the vast majority of the time, with the other parent having visitation, that parent is generally said to have been awarded sole physical custody.

Joint physical custody occurs when the parents both have a significant amount of parenting time with the child. Joint physical custody is not necessarily a 50/50 split of parenting time, but should be enough for each parent to have frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with the child.

In the child custody statute, the Missouri legislature has stated that it is the accepted public policy in our state to recognize that frequent, continuing, and meaningful contact with both parents is in the best interests of the child, unless the court finds a specific reason why that is not so.

It is also considered public policy that both parents are encouraged to participate in decisions regarding the health, welfare, and education, unless the court finds that there is some specific reason why that is not in the child's best interests as well.

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