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What is the difference between legal custody and physical custody?

April 6, 2023


The general term “custody” is used in a variety of scenarios, but in the State of Minnesota there are actually two types of custody: (1) legal custody; and (2) physical custody.  There are also only two options for custody arrangements, in which the parties would either share joint custody or one party would be granted sole custody.

“Legal Custody” pertains to who will be making the major decisions in a child’s life, with respect to the following:

  1. Medical - This includes but is not limited to, selection of doctor, dentist, orthodontist, therapist or other health care provider; whether to proceed with non-emergency or elective surgery; whether to proceed with other significant health, dental or mental health care; whether to obtain counseling, evaluation or other mental, psychological or emotional care for the child; and whether to obtain orthodontic services.

  2. Religious – This includes but is not limited to, participation in religion/cultural education; participation in baptism, confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, or other rights of a particular religion or cultural venue; membership in a particular church or synagogue or cultural venue; and attendance at a particular place of worship.

  3. Educational – This includes but is not limited to, selection of schools; whether the child should attend public or private school; attendance at summer school; and participation in special education programs provided by the schools.

If the parties share joint legal custody, then they must mutually agree upon these major decisions before such decisions can be made, except in emergencies.  If the parties are unable to come to an agreement on such an issue, then they must go through the legal process to address this.

“Physical Custody” pertains to a child’s primary residence, along with the day-to-day care of a child.  Physical custody is separate from parenting time, as parenting time entails the actual schedule of visitation with a child.  There are instances where the parties may share joint physical custody, yet one parent may have the majority of parenting time.  In other instances, one party may be awarded sole physical custody, but the parties share an equal parenting time schedule.

For further information on custody labels, please contact Jenna at (651) 603-4733 or

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