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A primer on Minnesota's child custody laws

Of all the legal terms that are synonymous with divorce, none perhaps stir up quite as strong of emotions as the term child custody. That's because for the overwhelming majority of people, their children always come first and the thought of potentially seeing them on a more limited basis may be difficult to even consider.

While these emotions are perfectly understandable, it's also important for a person not to let them cloud their judgment or cause them any unnecessary anxiety. At least one way to help prevent this from occurring is to perhaps gain a better understanding of what the law actually has to say about child custody and parenting time here in Minnesota.

Understanding the difference between physical custody and legal custody

While people often use the generic term "custody" when talking about kids and divorce, the reality is there are two very different types of child custody that are awarded by a court.

The first type is "physical custody," and it deals exclusively with the right of a parent or parents to make decisions about a child's everyday activities and place of residence. This is likely what most people think of when they hear the term "custody" used in the context of divorce.

The second -- and lesser known -- type is "legal custody," and it deals exclusively with the right of a parent or parents to make decisions about how the child should be raised. In other words, this means the authority to make decisions on important issues like health care, education and religion.  

Sole custody versus joint custody

In theory, a court could order any one of the following custody arrangements after examining multiple factors:

  • Both parents are given the right to make decisions about a child's everyday activities and place of residence, and both parents are given the right to make decisions about how the child should be raised.
  • One parent is given the right to make decisions about a child's everyday activities and place of residence, and both parents are given the right to make decisions about how the child should be raised.
  • Only one parent is given the right to make decisions about a child's everyday activities and place of residence, as well as the right to make decisions about how the child should be raised.

In the first scenario, this would be referred to as joint physical custody and joint legal custody, while in the second scenario, this would be referred to as sole physical custody and joint legal custody. In the third scenario, this would be referred to as sole physical custody and sole legal custody.

We will continue to explore this topic in future posts.

In the meantime, if you have questions about child custody, please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible.

Source: Minnesota Judicial Branch, "Basics on child custody and parenting time," Accessed Feb. 23, 2015

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