What Is the Difference Between Custodial Parent & Primary Physical Custody?

By Mary Jane Freeman

Updated March 28, 2020

Portrait of father and children

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During your divorce, the court awards physical custody -- which determines where your child resides -- to either you, your spouse or both of you. If the court awards physical custody to only one of you, or your child lives with one parent most of the time, that parent will be known as your child's custodial parent, which also is described as having primary physical custody. The terms custodial parent and primary physical custody usually describe the same type of custody arrangement.

Types of Custody

Custody comes in two forms -- legal and physical -- although terminology varies by state. A parent with legal custody has the right to make decisions about a child's upbringing, including religious training and schooling. Physical custody, on the other hand, speaks to the parent's right to provide a home for the child. In general, one parent may be granted sole legal and physical custody; either or both forms of custody may be shared between parents.

Parents with Physical Custody

Unless both parents are awarded physical custody, a child often lives with one parent most of the time. When this happens, that parent is referred to as the custodial parent; the other parent is known as the noncustodial parent and is usually awarded visitation and pays child support. The custodial parent is often described as having primary physical custody.