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The Divorce Encyclopedia
Physical Custody


Term Definition Physical Custody - refers to the parent the child actually lives with.
Application in Divorce Some time ago, The New York Times carried a story about a young boy who alternates between living with his mother and his father by commuting between San Francisco and Los Angeles. The boy had accumulated many, many frequent flier miles, but the story illustrated the many variations that can be given the physical custody. The parents of this young boy shared his physical custody during the summer recess when he was not in school.

Depending upon the arrangements, physical custody may be sole or joint, but sole custody with the mother is more the norm. Sometimes physical custody is called primary physical custody.

Physical custody can be a particularly contentious issue; when a child lives with one parent, he or she obviously is not with the other. And no judge is a King Solomon who can cut the child in half to satisfy both parents.

In both physical and legal custody, judges are guided by the gold standard: the best interest of the child. Like a refrain in a Greek chorus, this phrase appears again and again in the literature of custody cases. The age of a child, each parent’s living arrangements, a parent’s willingness to support the other’s relationship with a child, a parent’s relationship with the children before the divorce, a child’s preference (in some jurisdictions) -- all are considered in determining the custody arrangements that are in his or her best interest.

In many, if not most jurisdictions, courts are guided by the maternal preference. Put in a simple way, this means that, all other things being equal, a mother will get physical custody of small children. In general, courts seek to minimize the disruption to he child. In practice, this means that the child very often will end up with the mother in the family home (and the father, who once lived there, will now become an occasional visitor).

See also Sole Custody; Coequal Custody; Nesting; Joint Legal Custody.

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