Legal vs. Physical Custody

Many people in Colorado think of “custody” as having physical control of something. However, when evaluating Colorado custody laws, custody also involves other types of control and authority.

When it comes to custody of a child, the law divides custody into two types: physical custody and legal custody. Courts generally allocate these forms of custody separately, so it is important for parents to understand the difference. By learning about legal versus physical custody from a family law attorney, you can create the best action plan for your court case.

What is Legal Custody in Colorado?

When a parent has legal custody, they have the authority to make important decisions regarding a child’s upbringing. Colorado statutes refer to legal custody as “decision-making responsibility.”

The types of decisions covered under this legal authority involve issues such as:

  • Where the child attends school
  • The type of medical care received
  • Religious practices
  • The ability to travel

Courts may allocate decision-making authority to both parents jointly or grant all the authority to one parent. The grant of legal custody/decision-making authority is supposed to be based on the best interests of the child.

Physical Custody Involves Parenting Time

Parenting time refers to the time a child lives with a particular parent. In Colorado, parenting time may be split equally between both parents, or one parent may have more parenting time than the other.

When a parent has substantially more parenting time, that parent is often referred to as having primary residential parental responsibility. In other jurisdictions, that parent—the one spending the majority of the time physically caring for a child—is said to have physical custody, while the other parent has “visitation rights” with the child. Colorado uses the term parenting time to describe both physical custody and visitation.

As with legal custody, the amount of physical custody or parenting time allocated to each parent is determined based on what the court finds to be in the child’s best interests.

Establishing and Modifying Orders Regarding Legal and Physical Custody

Parents are often encouraged to develop their own agreement regarding allocation of decision-making authority and parenting time. However, if a judge feels the arrangement is not appropriate or the parents are unable to reach an accord, the court will allocate legal and physical custody based on a number of factors.

From the outset, parents should be prepared to present solid evidence showing why their requested allocation of custody is in the child’s best interests. It is possible to have legal and physical custody orders amended, but the court may not be willing to consider a modification unless a parent can demonstrate that a substantial change in circumstances warrants the amendment.

A Denver Family Attorney Could Help Secure Your Goals for Physical and Legal Custody

Both parents have rights when it comes to obtaining legal and physical custody of their children. However, if the court receives evidence showing only one parent’s side of the story, the other parent could lose out.

For further assistance learning about legal versus physical custody, contact Jones Law Firm, PC. One of our family law attorneys will walk you through the legal process and advocate for you throughout the case. Schedule your consultation today by calling (720) 606-4818.


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

Our team includes attorneys licensed to practice in multiple states including April D. Jones in California, Patrick G. Barkman in Texas, the Cherokee Nation, the Northern District of Texas, and the District of Colorado (United States Court of Appeals 10th and 5th Circuit).