This might sound like an easy question, but in Pennsylvania, the word “custody” has several different meanings, and the definitions have some importance. The definitions are part of the Child Custody statute, 23 Pa.C.S. §5322
The first distinction the Custody Act makes is between Legal and Physical Custody. Legal custody means the right to make major decisions on behalf of the child, such as medical, religious and educational decisions. In the counties where I practice (Blair, Bedford, Cambria, Centre and Huntingdon), legal custody is usually shared, which means that both parents have some say in these decisions, and should consult with the other parent before major decisions are made. Both parents are entitled to discuss these issues with the child’s teacher or doctor, and receive copies of information about the child.
Physical custody refers to the person who has possession and control of a child at a given time. Physical custody can be shared, with both parties having significant periods of time with the child. Often, one parent has “primary physical custody,” which means that the child will be with that parent for the majority of time. Some courts refer to this as “residential custody.” The other parent may have “partial physical custody,” meaning the child is with him or her for specified periods of time, or “visitation” – which means the right to visit the child in the other parent’s home.
In most cases, the courts in Central Pennsylvania want both parents to continue to have a good relationship with the child, and will, even if physical custody is not shared, be fairly liberal in allowing for partial custody. Supervised custody or visitation, which means that someone (an agency, or a responsible adult supervises the visit) is ordered when it is necessary to protect the child.
Child Custody cases are always decided based on what is in the best interests of the child. The actual schedule the child follows will vary greatly. Some of the factors considered are the age of the child, the child’s schedule (particularly when they are attending school), and each parent’s work schedule.