Maryland/D.C. Child Custody: Legal vs. Physical Custody

Portrait of a mother and daughter spending quality time together outside.

In divorce proceedings in Maryland and the District of Columbia, some of the most complicated legal issues involve child custody. In fact, one of the most confusing aspects of child custody for divorcing parents is learning that “custody” is actually two things: legal custody and physical custody. Thus, for example, when a parent says “I want full custody of the children,” they may be shocked when the Maryland/DC court awards full physical custody but still allows the other spouse to have shared legal custody.

For help with child custody during divorce, please feel free to reach out to the Maryland and D.C. family law attorneys at The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl.

Awarding joint legal custody is common because Maryland/D.C. divorce and child custody courts generally favor the children retaining some relationship with each parent. Likewise, Maryland/D.C. family law courts want to encourage each parent to maintain a relationship with their children and to remain invested in their upbringing and development. 

In a manner of speaking, shared legal custody is the “default setting.” However, there are a number of circumstances where shared legal custody will be rejected. These generally involve some concern for the safety of the children or other evaluation that it is not “in the best interests” of the child for both parents to share legal custody. Circumstances where shared legal custody will be denied include:

  • One parent engaged in proven abuse of the other parent, the children, members of the household, or others
  • Child endangerment or neglect
  • Criminal behavior by one parent
  • Mental health and/or addiction behaviors that might endanger the child/children or would be best if those behaviors were absent from the child’s life
  • And more

To have full physical custody means that one parent has control over the physical person of the child or children and related aspects of the child’s life. This includes where the child lives, where and what the child eats, clothing, customary vacations, discipline and punishment, house rules, who may visit and have “time” with the children, typical minor medical decisions, etc. Legal custody encompasses what is commonly called “major life decisions” (or “major life-changing decisions”) for a child including:

  • Religious education and upbringing
  • Schooling — such as whether the child/children will attend religious, private, or public schools
  • Major health decisions
  • Changing the child’s name
  • Encouraging or discouraging lifestyle choices
  • Gender affirmations
  • Major discipline and punishment decisions
  • Major overseas activities like study overseas, tours abroad, foreign exchange programs, etc.
  • And more

There are, of course, a number of parenting decisions that fall into a “gray zone” where it is unclear if both parents must agree. These might include short overseas vacations or rules with respect to when a child might start dating.

As noted, if legal custody is shared, then the parents are generally required to agree on these types of major life-changing decisions that parents make on behalf of their children. If the parents cannot agree, then they must resort to asking the Maryland/D.C. child custody court to resolve the dispute.

Maryland And D.C. Family Law Attorneys

Contact the seasoned and experienced Maryland and D.C. family law lawyers at The Law Offices of Thomas Stahl for more information. We have the skills and expertise you need. We have proven experience with family law for Maryland and the District of Columbia. Schedule a consultation today or call us at (410) 696-4326 or (202) 964-7280. We have offices in Columbia, MD, and Washington, DC.

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