California Child Custody Glossary

When going through a child custody case in the state of California you may encounter some words or particular terminology that you are unfamiliar with. In an effort to help you be as prepared as possible for the case, we have prepared a list of terms regarding child custody below.

Joint Legal Custody

Both parents have authority to make decisions regarding the child’s health, education, welfare, religion, driver’s license, etc. Sometimes, a judge gives parents joint legal custody, but not joint physical custody.

This means both parents share the responsibility in making important decisions in their child’s lives, but live with one parent most of the time. In most cases, the parent that does not have physical custody has visitation with the children.

Examples of Decisions or Choices Parents with Legal Custody Make Include:

  • School or childcare
  • Religious activities or institutions
  • Psychiatric, psychological, or other mental health counseling or therapy needs
  • Doctor, dentist, orthodontist, or other health professional (except in emergency situations)
  • Sports, summer camp, vacation, or extracurricular activities
  • Travel
  • Where to live

Joint Physical Custody

Each parent has significant periods of physical custody, although parents can share joint custody even if the timeshares are unequal. For example, one parent may alternate a weekend schedule and the other parent has the child the rest of the time.

Legal Custody

Legal custody refers to the parent that has decision-making authority for issues with health, education, and welfare of a child. When both parents share this responsibility it is referred to as “Joint Legal Custody.”

Physical Custody

Physical custdy refers to that parent or parents who have the physical responsibility for the care of the child (joint custody, sole custody, and primary custody included under this umbrella).

Primary Custody

Often attorneys avoid the use of either “sole custody” or “joint custody” and use the term “primary physical custody” to designate the parent who has day-to day care of the child. California child custody laws do not have any designation known as “primary physical custody,” and this may cause problems under certain circumstances, such as in a move-away case where a parent wants to move with the kids to another city or state.

Sole Legal Custody

One parent is able to make all decisions regarding the child’s health, education, welfare, religion, driver’s license, etc.

Sole Physical Custody

One parent clearly has the lion’s share of time, as well as responsibility for day-to-day care of the child.


If one parent has physical custody, the other parent is referred to as having visitation with the child.