People often use the term “child custody” as a catch-all. In reality, custody has a very specific meaning, and it doesn’t have anything to do with which parent the child is primarily living with. Here’s a quick overview of the differences between custody and placement, and what they mean for each parent.

Legal custody

Legal custody does not directly refer to which parent a child lives with. It’s solely about decision-making. A parent with legal custody gets to make major decisions regarding the child’s life, including:

  • Choosing a school
  • Practicing a religion
  • Finding non-emergency medical care
  • Consenting to the child obtaining a driver’s license
  • Consenting to the child joining the military

You’ll generally see two types of custody. Sole legal custody means that parent has the right to make those major decisions, regardless of the other parent’s preference. Joint legal custody means both parents must make a decision together.

Physical placement

Physical placement refers to which parent a child is living with at any given time. When you, as a parent, are with the child, you get to make the routine daily decisions, such as when and what to eat for dinner, bed time and what they wear.

A judge will generally help determine a placement schedule, which outlines when each child will be with which parent. The judge will consider a number of factors – including availability to care for the child, location of the residence, family relationships and parental cooperation – and either determine the schedule themselves, or approve an agreement the parents submit.

The goal is to maximize the time a child gets with each parent, while prioritizing the child’s best interests. In the end, one parent may be granted primary physical placement, while the other gets regular periods of time with the child. Or parents may be granted shared placement, juggling overnights with the child.

Custody and placement changes

If you, as a parent, want to change a custody or placement agreement, there are avenues for doing so. They can be a bit complicated, however, and you might benefit from some legal guidance in the matter.

Keep in mind, the courts are most concerned about one thing: the well-being of the child. A request for any modification will have to demonstrate that doing so will be in their best interest.