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Physical Custody vs. Legal Custody: What’s the Difference?

When two separated, divorced, or never-married parents have minor children together, perhaps the most pressing question is how these children will be affected and who will get custody of them. In the United States, child custody is split into two categories: physical custody and legal custody.

Physical custody is wholly concerned with whom the child will live, while legal custody is about who has the right to make decisions — such as regarding religion, extracurricular activities, non-emergency medical treatments, and schooling — on behalf of the child. To fully understand the differences between physical and legal custody and how they will apply to your parenting arrangement, it is important to know the various types of arrangements a court may order.

Texas has a unique approach to this issue. It has converted “joint custody,” meaning custody that is shared, and “sole custody” in which one parent is fully legally responsible for the child into “joint managing conservatorships” and “sole managing conservatorships,” respectively. A joint managing conservatorship is the default throughout the Lone Star State and simply means that all important decisions will be made with both parents in agreement.

While conflicts may still arise in joint managing conservatorships, there are numerous ways to handle them. Sometimes, parents opt to use their differing values as a point of compromise. For instance, the mother may place great value on a child’s schooling and decide to allow the other parent the final say on religion (that parent’s primary value) as long as she gets her way regarding where the child will attend school.

Please note that a joint managing conservatorship does not mean that physical custody will be equally split between the two parents, although this is certainly possible. Typically, a court will deem one parent the “primary managing conservator, or the parent in charge of the child’s daily care (in other words, the child will mainly live with them). In most cases, the primary managing conservator will receive child support payments from the other parent, or secondary managing conservator.

As for sole managing conservatorships, the state essentially gives all the power to one parent. For legal custody, all key decisions regarding the child’s life — including where the child will live — will be made by the sole managing conservator. Therefore, in terms of physical custody, the child will likely live with whomever was granted the sole managing conservatorship.

The idea of sole managing conservatorships may seem worrying to many parents, but they are actually quite rare. Generally, a court only opts for this type of conservatorship for cases in which one parent is living with a drug or alcohol problem or is physically abusive toward the child.

Considering that the state has unique custody laws, it is a good idea to consult an attorney regarding the matter. Do not leave your future with your child up to chance or entrust it to inexperienced hands. Our seasoned legal team at the Law Offices of Frank E. Mann, P.C. wants to help you make sense of these complicated laws and come to a compromise that is best for all involved.

To learn more about potential custody arrangements, or for help in sorting out yours, contact the Law Offices of Frank E. Mann, P.C. online today. Our Houston firm offers free initial consultations.