What Is the Difference Between Custodial Parent and Sole Legal Custody of a Child?

By Kay Lee

Playful father and daughter on sofa

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Custody is a serious decision that comes into play when parents are no longer married to each other. Unless both parents come to a mutual agreement, a court will dictate which parent the child will live with, who will be responsible for critical decisions relating to the child and whether both parents will share legal or physical custody. Custody arrangements can be modified, and are typically used until the child reaches adulthood -- which is age 18, in most states. Custody determinations are made in accordance with the best interests of the child. Custody is also a concept of state law, and the concept varies by state; its terminology, however, is typically universally accepted. For example, legal custody is not defined in Hawaii state law, but attorneys use the term, because its meaning is universally understood. There are four major custody arrangements, with the differences being which parent is able to make important decisions for the child and where the child will live.

Joint Legal Custody

Joint legal custody is when both parents share the legal rights and responsibilities that affect their child's health, education and welfare in a number of areas, including in which religious faith to raise the child. This requires regular communication between the parents -- and if one parent wants to make an important decision -- that parent should consult the other parent before important decisions affecting the child are made.

Sole Legal Custody

Sole legal custody means that only one parent has the legal right and responsibility to make decisions affecting her child's health, education and welfare. This parent is often referred to as the custodial parent. When one parent has sole legal custody, the non-custodial parent is granted visitation rights so that he can spend time with his children. Visitation rights, however, do not give the non-custodial parent the right to remove the child from the custodial parent.

Physical Custody

Custody can also be limited to where the child resides, which is known as physical custody. When there is joint physical custody, it means that each parent will have her own time of physical custody of the child, thereby ensuring that each parent has ongoing contact with the child. When parents share physical custody, a court will likely require the parents to develop a parenting plan to ensure consistency in the child’s life -- provided that this parenting plan is in the best interests of the child. Additionally, the parenting plan may provide which parent’s house will serve as the child’s official residence, such as for the purposes of school and medical records. Sole physical custody means that a child will reside with and be under the supervision of one parent, and will visit the non-custodial parent, according to what has been set out in a visitation agreement.

Child Support

Although wholly related to custody decisions, child support is considered a separate legal issue. Child support laws are set at the state level, and although the details are different, the major concepts are similar. Child support is the amount of money that one parent provides the other to help with the child’s education, maintenance and lifestyle. The amount of child support is determined by the amount of time or overnights that each parent spends with his child, the incomes of both parents and their earning potential, and other factors specific to the parents.