In Pennsylvania, the two main classifications of child custody are legal and physical. While they often overlap, they are distinct. The degree of custody each parent receives depends on many factors.

Difference between legal and physical custody

Physical custody refers to the ability to spend time with the child in person. One parent may receive sole custody, but it is more common to have a degree of shared custody between parents.

Options include primary physical custody, or custodial parent, with whom the child lives most of the time. The other parent has some level of joint or partial custody, with time spent at the non-custodial parent's residence or other location determined by the court.

Under some circumstances, a non-custodial parent may receive only some level of supervised visitation. Sole custody may be awarded if the other parent or the other parent's arrangements are not safe for the child.

Legal custody refers to decision-making regarding the child. While it is preferable that both parents have a say in decisions regarding a child's health, education, and welfare, there are times when sole legal authority is granted. This is common if one parent is unfit or abusive, or if the parent lives far away or has little involvement in the child's day-to-day needs.

It doesn't make sense for a non-custodial parent to have to be consulted when a child has a toothache or needs a tutor for math. Divorced parents often come to agreements on what types of decisions they should both discuss. But if everything is a battleground or one parent is getting involved in minor decisions and thus preventing timely decisions in the best interest of the child, then a judge may give one parent sole legal custody.

Factors that affect the type of child custody awarded

There are many factors that affect the amount of physical and legal custody each parent receives. The following is an incomplete list of some of the more common factors:

  • Which parent is most likely to try to ensure the child's regular contact with the other parent – the court's goal is for the child to maintain a positive relationship with both parents in a non-abusive situation
  • Which parent has spent more time and effort on the child on a day-to-day basis
  • The child's relationship with each parent; the child's custody preference, if mature enough
  • The parent most likely to encourage continued relations with both sides of the family
  • History of domestic abuse of a parent or any member of the parent's household
  • History of substance abuse, mental illness, criminal record of a parent or any member of the parent's household
  • The child's special needs
  • Location of each parent, preferably being able to keep the child in the same school with the same friends and extra-curricular activities, if the child was well-adjusted there
  • Level of conflict between the parents or the ability to cooperate for the child's sake
  • Which parent has the ability to attend to the child's daily needs as well as his or her physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development, and create a loving and nurturing environment
  • The safety and suitability of each parent's living arrangements, appropriate for a child

There are many other relevant factors, which we, as experienced divorce attorneys, have seen. We have the legal knowledge and negotiating and litigating expertise to ask you the right questions, gather strong evidence, and present clear evidence in support of a child custody arrangement that benefits our clients and their children to the negotiating table or the court.

Don't go through the child custody process without an expert on your side. Contact the Law Offices of Blitshtein & Weiss today in our Southampton office in Bucks County, PA at (215) 364-4900. Our first consultation is free, so we can determine how to best help you.