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The difference between legal and physical custody in Massachusetts

| Oct 5, 2021 | Divorce

The divorce process can be stressful even at the best of times. However, when children are involved, tensions can be heightened further. Disputes over child custody are often at the heart of proceedings, with parents focused on the child’s best interests. 

Often, custody is used as a catch-all term. However, it is important to note that there are two types of custody in Massachusetts, legal and physical. 

What is legal custody? 

M.G.L. c. 208, § 31. outlines the law relating to legal child custody in Massachusetts. Essentially, legal custody grants the right of parents the ability to decide which school the child attends, what type of medical treatment they receive and what religion, if any, they are to practice. 

Importantly, legal custody can be granted to one person, or it can be joint. In cases where parents are able to reach amicable agreements, the court may grant joint legal custody to both of them. However, where amicable agreements are an impossibility, the court could decide to grant sole legal custody to the parent who has consistently and properly taken on the role of making decisions on behalf of the child. In most cases, the other parent will likely still have the right to be informed of any important decisions made on behalf of the child. 

What is physical custody? 

Again, the law relating to physical custody is clarified by M.G.L. c. 208, § 31. Generally, it refers to the residence of a minor child. Similar to legal custody, physical custody can either be sole or joint. A child will usually reside with a sole custodian for around two-thirds of the time, with visitation from the other parent revolving around the child’s best interests. 

Shared physical custody tends to mean that parents are allocated equal time with the child. Often, this will consist of a week-on-week-off split schedule. The court will try to consider the child’s best interests and devise a schedule that allows frequent and continued contact with both parents.