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What is the Difference Between Legal and Physical Custody in Spartanburg?

Posted by J. Benjamin Stevens | Apr 04, 2018 | 0 Comments

Photo Credit: Colin Maybard,

In South Carolina, there are many different "common" terms for child custody. In fact, a strict reading of family law appellate cases shows that our courts actually use many of the common custody terms interchangeably making it a little hard to decipher what "legal" and "physical" custody of a child really means with regard to divorced or separated parents. Some of the terms we commonly hear in the public to designate specific custody arrangements are listed below. How many of these have you heard? 

  • Joint Legal Custody
  • Sole Custody
  • Primary Custody
  • Secondary Custody
  • Shared Custody
  • Divided Custody
  • Primary Placement
  • Sole Legal Custody
  • Secondary Placement
  • Primary Physical Custody

With all those terms, it's no wonder there is some confusion when clients come to see us about their child custody matters. 

"Legal" custody of a child typically means the parent has the right to determine many of the "important" decisions in a child's life. Because of this, it's typically the case that whichever parent has "legal" custody of the child, will also have "physical" custody of the child the majority of the time, but not always. When a parent has "legal" custody of the child, he or she can make decisions about the child's education, medical care, supervision, discipline, religious training and financial matters. The "legal" custodian is also the person who can authorize things like surgeries and admission to mental health treatment programs.

"Physical" custody of a child simply means that a parent has been given lawful, possession and control of the child.

Parents who have been awarded a true "joint custody" arrangement by the Family Court actually share "legal" custody of their child and they split "physical" custody of the child based on whatever visitation schedule has been put into place by the court (or agreed upon by the parties). An award of "joint legal custody" means that the parents are expected to work together to make decisions for their child as if the family was still intact, but typically the court will designate one parent as the "primary legal custodian" which means that parent is the "tie-breaker" in major decisions when the parents don't agree.

If you have a joint legal custody arrangement and you don't agree with the decisions the primary legal custodian is making for your child, all is not lost! We handled child custody modification cases every day where one parent asks the Spartanburg County Family Court to review the prior child custody order to determine if the primary legal custodian is, in fact, acting in the child's best interests. In cases where we can prove the primary legal custodian is not acting in the child's best interests, the judge will often re-write the custody order to either switch the primary legal custodian, or change primary custody entirely to a "sole legal custody" arrangement. More on that in a future article. 

The Stevens Firm, P.A. - Family Law Center has provided exceptional legal counsel and support to families throughout South Carolina for over two decades, handling all matters of family law, such as child custody, child support, and divorce. We are well-equipped to handle all divorce and family law matters, no matter your circumstances. Contact us at (864) 598-9172 to schedule an initial consultation. 

About the Author

J. Benjamin Stevens

Senior Partner


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