What is the Difference Between Legal Custody and Physical Custody?

Alabama Code §30-3-157 is known as Alabama’s “Joint Custody” statute and it defines the different types of legal and physical custody in our state.  This statute sets out our state policy as follows:

 It is the policy of this state to assure that minor children have frequent and continuing contact with parents who have shown the ability to act in the best interest of their children and to encourage parents to share in the rights and responsibilities of rearing their children after the parents have separated or dissolved their marriage. Joint custody does not necessarily mean equal physical custody.

As you might imagine, there are a lot of misconceptions about what joint custody means versus what state law actually says.  It is for this reason that any time a client tells me they and their spouse want to agree to joint custody, I ask the question, “what does joint custody mean to you?”

Joint Custody means that the parents have both joint legal and joint physical custody.

Joint Legal Custody means both parents have equal rights and responsibilities for major decisions concerning the child, including, but not limited to, the education of the child, health care, and religious training. The court may designate one parent to have sole power to make certain decisions while both parents retain equal rights and responsibilities for other decisions.  If one parent has sole or primary physical custody, that parent ends up being the final decision-maker if there is a dispute.

Joint Physical Custody means physical custody is shared by the parents in a way that assures the child frequent and substantial contact with each parent. Joint physical custody does not necessarily mean physical custody of equal durations of time.  This is the definition according to state law.  In our jurisdiction, joint physical custody almost always refers to custody arrangements where the parenting time is shared on an equal, 50/50 basis, in some fashion.

Sole Legal Custody means one parent has sole rights and responsibilities to make major decisions concerning the child, including, but not limited to, the education of the child, health care, and religious training.  Sole legal custody is typically only ordered if the other parent is a danger to the child.

Sole Physical Custody, is more commonly referred to as “physical custody” or “primary physical custody” means one parent has sole physical custody and the other parent has rights of visitation except as otherwise provided by the court.