It's a cliche that children are "caught in the middle" when parents divorce, but it is, unfortunately, often accurate. Aside from the obvious psychological and emotional trauma that accompanies the breakup of a family, children typically have very little agency in a decision that fundamentally affects their lives: when their parents' lives become separate, what will become of them?

The Bucks County child custody lawyers of Williams Family Law are routinely asked those kinds of questions. As with most things regarding divorce and child custody, the answers vary depending on the situation.

Custody of children falls into two categories: legal custody and physical custody. Either may be at issue even if the parents were never married. A party in a divorce may seek one or both types of custody exclusively or may wish to share one or both types of custody.

In Pennsylvania, either biological parent may seek legal or physical custody, unless their parental rights previously have been terminated, such as through an adoption agreement. Any person who legally has adopted the child also may seek legal or physical custody. Grandparents and third parties also may have the standing to seek legal or physical custody under limited circumstances.

Legal custody

Legal custody refers to having effective power of attorney for a child. Someone with full legal custody may make unilateral decisions about that child's education, religious upbringing, and non-emergency medical care. More common is shared legal custody, in which parents must collectively agree on such decisions or seek court intervention if no agreement can be reached.

Though persons who exercise legal custody for a child usually exercise at least partial physical custody as well, the two types of custody are unrelated. It is, for example, theoretically possible to exercise full legal custody of a child without exercising any physical custody of that child though it probably would require fairly unusual circumstances for a judge to approve such an arrangement.

Physical custody

Divorcing parents typically share physical custody of a child or children. The schedule of physical custody varies with the circumstances of each divorce. Some divide the children's time equally between both parents. Others may have the children living with one parent for the majority of days each month. Still other arrangements may have a child or children seeing one parent only during specific days without spending any overnights with that parent.

Because every family is different, every child custody case is different. If you are trying to decide how to approach legal or physical custody of children, the experienced divorce attorneys at Williams Family Law, P.C. can help advise you on the best course of action in the best interests of your children. Please call us at 215-340-2207.