Legal Custody and Physical Custody

What’s the Difference?

Legal Custody, Physical custody, what the difference here and why is it important to consider?  Divorce is tough on the parents, it’s a complete change in lifestyle, a new beginning, and for many one of the most stressful events they’ll ever go through.  It can be even tougher on the children of those parents.  While the parents have decided to part ways, often the kids would rather keep the family in tact. Unfortunately, the kids often become the central focus of litigation.  Everyone wants custody.

There are two terms that litigants going through a divorce need to keep in mind that deal with custody, legal custody and physical custody.  What’s the difference, and why knowing the distinctions is important.  The court is going to make rulings on these issues, and unless you’re on top of the terminology, you’ll be in the dark.  This post is written only to cover the difference in these terms here in Missouri.  As with any legal jargon, it is important to be informed.  If your lawyer has not explained these terms to you, there’s a problem.

Legal Custody:

Legal custody determines which of the parents will make major decisions for the children. Major decisions include the choice of schools, doctors, child care providers, major dental work, psychological or psychiatric counseling, etc. Unless there is a compelling reason otherwise, courts generally grant Joint Legal Custody; in that case, the parents must make major decisions jointly.

Physical Custody:

Physical custody refers to where the children will be physically located. Similar to legal custody, unless there is a compelling reason otherwise, courts generally grant Joint Physical Custody with the child(ren) splitting their time with each parent. While the court may grant joint physical custody, the child(ren) will use only one parent’s address for mailing and education purposes.

Ch Ch Ch Changes … to Custody Orders

Changing legal and physical custody after the court has ruled can be extremely difficult.  It requires filing an action for modification of the existing orders and will only be granted if there has been a change in circumstances of the legal or physical custodian, and a modification is in the best interest of the child. Because the burden of proof is so incredibly high in these situations, you want to be sure and get it right the first time. Be sure to have a qualified attorney that you can trust in your corner.


Markwell Law, LLC
1031 Peruque Crossing Ct, Ste. B
O’Fallon, MO 63366
Phone: 636-486-1093