Legal, Physical, Joint and Primary Custody: What’s in a label?

NC Child CustodyI’ve represented many parents in many custody cases.

In almost every case I get asked about the definitions of “legal,” “physical,” “primary” and “joint” custody.  Clients have a great deal of anguish about the labels, even after the litigation has started.

“Legal custody” is not defined in the general statutes of North Carolina. However, a few cases have talked about what “legal custody” means.  It refers to the right and responsibility to make decisions with important and long-term implications for a child’s best interest and welfare.   For example, a child’s education, health care, and religious training decisions if given to both parents are a form of  joint legal custody.

“Physical custody” is defined in the North Carolina general statutes and is the physical care and supervision of a child.

Conceptually, physical custody is about where the child is and legal custody is about who makes important major decisions for the child.  In general, if a court grants one parent legal custody and not the other, it does not mean that the parent without legal custody can’t decide day-to-day matters for a child.

“Visitation,” while not defined in the North Carlina general statutes, is defined by appellate cases as a lesser form of physical custody.  In general, one often deals with a “primary custody” and “visitation” order where the court simply decides to use those labels and define a custodial framework.  The truth about these labels is that the same order could define the schedule as “joint physical custody” and refer to each parent’s custodial time and grant one parent primary legal custody to the same effect.

If anything should taken from this jumble of definitions is that in making decisions about what you believe is the best custodial arrangement for your child, you should think in terms of how time is shared and how important decisions are made and not get wrapped up in the labels.

Family law attorney Scott Allen handles custody cases every day and has over seventeen years of experience.  If you have questions or need assistance call him at (919) 863-4183 or email at sallen@allenspence.com.