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What Is the Difference Between Child Visitation and Child Custody?

Many people going through a divorce are experiencing family law for the first time. Sometimes, they have no prior experience with the legal system. Legal language can get confusing for a neophyte, especially when people casually swap between terms.

This is often the case with the terms “child custody” and “child visitation.” Legally, they are different things, but you can easily mistake one for the other. Understanding the difference is important, as it can have a huge impact on your future and your relationship with the kids.

In this article, we will clarify the distinction between the two, helping inform your child custody decisions going forward.

Definition of Child Custody

The term “child custody” is legally broad. It can have varying definitions, and those definitions can change from state to state. Generally, there are two forms of child custody in the U.S.

Physical Child Custody

This term refers to having direct possession of the child. The custodial parent lives with, feeds, and cares for the children.

Depending on your parenting plan, you may have sole physical custody, or you may share physical custody. Imagine, for example, the weekend parent. On those days, they have complete parental responsibility over the kids. The kids stay with them, eat with them, and so on.

Parents can share physical custody in small or large ratios. California, for example, uses a percentage system for child custody. The parenting plan determines how much of the year each parent has physical custody.

Simple pragmatics makes a close percentage difficult to impossible. It is unrealistic to assume parents can manage a pure, 50/50 custody split. Some could, however, live with a 70/30 split, and so on.

Legal Child Custody

Legal custody refers to decision-making authority. Generally, states want to know who oversees a child’s healthcare and education.

Like physical custody, legal custody can go to one parent alone, or it can be shared. For instance, imagine a family where one parent is a teacher and the other is a doctor. It makes sense to give the teacher authority over educational matters, and the doctor has power over healthcare.

There are several ways to combine decision-making power. You can have sole authority over certain decisions. You can also have “final” decision power, where your choice can override the other parent’s. Your ex can also share authority with you equally. Furthermore, these choices apply to each matter separately. You could, therefore, have sole authority on one matter but share power on another.

You can have physical custody without having legal custody. You may have the kids on the weekends, but you may still have no authority over certain decisions. In an emergency, however, you can have temporary authority over healthcare concerns.

Definition of Child Visitation

Child visitation is time that you specifically schedule to see your kids. Even if you spend this time with them alone, it is not considered custody.

Visitation schedules can take many forms. You could, for instance, pick the kids up every Thursday night for ice cream, or you could spend most of the day with them for one Saturday a month. You can schedule multiple visitations throughout the week as well.

Electronic visits can apply to your schedule, too. You can plan regular phone calls, video chats, and so on.

Remember, the court approves your visitation schedule. It is a part of your official parenting plan, and the court takes that seriously. Schedules are often rigid. They can specify times and places. They can also make parents responsible for pick-ups, drop-offs, modes of transportation, payment of transport, and so on.

If either parent breaks this schedule, they can suffer legal consequences. Even minor infractions can have big consequences. A parent who is habitually late for pick-ups and drop-offs, for instance, can receive penalties. The court also takes electronic visits as seriously as physical ones. If a parent blocks phone calls and chats, or if a parent chronically misses them, the court can step in.


It’s important to remember that if a parenting plan isn’t working, you can alter it. You and your ex can do this together. If you need help, you can attend mediation. When you can’t work together, you can bring the matter back to court and plea for a more reasonable, fair schedule.

If you have questions or concerns about child custody and visitation in your divorce, our firm is here to help. You can call us today at (916) 299-3936, or you can contact us online.