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What Is the Difference Between Physical Custody and Legal Custody in Pennsylvania?

father's mother's and baby's hand holding each other

Child custody can be a complex issue, not only because of the emotional ties between parents and their children but also because of the types of rights and responsibilities at stake and the types of custody possible. The discussion starts with understanding how Pennsylvania Code Rule 1915.1 defines the two kinds of custody under the law:

  • Physical custody — This kind of custody involves the actual physical possession and control of a child.
  • Legal custody — Legal custody is the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, including medical, religious and educational decisions.

When you have physical custody, you have the legal right to have your child reside with you, along with the responsibility to provide shelter, food, clothing, and other material needs. Physical custody can be sole, so you have the exclusive right to provide a residence for the child, or joint, so you share responsibility with the other parent.

Legal custody, or decision-making authority, can also be sole or joint. However, shared legal custody can be much harder to negotiate than shared physical custody. Legal custody controls intangible aspects of a child’s life and matters of taste, opinion, and tradition rather than provable right or wrong. Parents who are now living separate lives may feel less need or desire to compromise over issues for the sake of the other parent. Disagreements can be difficult to resolve when it is unclear who gets the final word.

For these reasons, many parenting plans include a mechanism for resolving disagreements, such as granting final authority over certain issues to one of the parents or appointing a person to arbitrate disputes. In our practice, we have found it beneficial to negotiate these points as part of a marital settlement agreement rather than taking a “wait and see” approach that can lead back to court.

The Law Offices of Jennifer Courtney & Associates, P.C. handles all aspects of child custody in Pennsylvania. We serve clients throughout Bucks County, including Newtown, Washington Crossing, and Richboro. Call us at 215.493.3360 or contact our Yardley office online to schedule a consultation.

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