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Physical versus legal custody: what you need to know

When making the decision to separate and divorce, Virginia parents are understandably concerned with the effect their decision will have on their children. Divorce will certainly have an impact on the children, but parents can alleviate any negative impact through thoughtful, sustainable custody agreements and orders.

The first step in reaching a custody agreement that works for the family as whole, now and for years into the future, is to understand the different types of custody. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to custody and visitation. Divorcing parents should consider the unique arrangements that will realistically work best for their family and not try to fit their family into a cookie cutter schedule.

A custody plan that works 

Parents that can reach agreement with one another concerning custody and visitation –often referred to as custodial time schedules or parenting time schedules – will save themselves considerable time, money, and emotional stress versus parents who litigate their custody issues. Additionally, parents who reach agreement are nearly always happier with their arrangements moving forward than those parents who put these issues on trial and leave it judges to make the decisions. It is often said that there are no winners in custody trials.

You, as a parent, can reach an agreement with your spouse and still protect your parental rights and the best interests of your children. Knowing the basics will help you negotiate the best agreement for you and your family. In Virginia custody cases, there are two distinct aspects of custody:

  • Legal custody: Legal custody refers to each parent's right to make important decisions on behalf of the child. Legal custody encompasses the big issues - religious upbringing, healthcare matters, educational decisions, and more. In most cases, parents retain joint legal custody, and it is only in extreme cases wherein one parent has sole legal custody over the other parent’s objection.
  • Physical custody: Physical custody refers to the actual time that a child will be spending during the week, month, and year with each parent. Parents must determine physical custodial schedules or parenting time schedules based on the day-to-day routines and needs of the family. These schedules are often different in the summer than during the school year for school-aged children. Parents also vary their physical custodial schedules during holidays, special days such as children’s birthdays, and breaks from school, so that they split these special days between them or alternate them from year to year.

Your post-divorce future

Custody is not an easy issue to address, even between two parents who get along. The decisions you make during divorce will have an impact on your children for years to come. However, this important matter is not something that you have to consider, negotiate, and decide upon on your own. You may find it beneficial to seek guidance from a Virginia attorney well-versed in family law as you work through these sensitive issues, helping you stay focused on the goal - a strong post-divorce future for you and your kids.

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