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Physical Vs. Legal Custody in Arizona

Updated: May 2, 2022

Est. Reading: 3 minutes

When most people hear the term “child custody,” they think of the place where a child (who has co-parents) lies his or her head at night; swapping out living arrangements on Sunday afternoons; and everything else that comes with physical custody of a child. When talking about child custody, though, it is important to distinguish between the two types of custody: legal and physical

In Arizona, legal custody of a child is referred to as “legal decision-making” and has to do with a parent’s legal authority to make decisions (or have some say) in a child’s religious and educational upbringing, as well as having some input in the child’s medical care. Essentially, a parent with legal decision-making has a say in all non-emergency matters involving a child’s upbringing. Conversely, physical custody, which is officially referred to as “parenting time” in Arizona, has to do with a child’s living arrangements. 

While parenting time and legal decision-making often intersect, these are two separate matters before the family court. If parents cannot come to an agreement regarding parenting time and visitation schedules, then the court is required to consider the “best interests” of the child. This is a list of factors covering everything from the mental state of each parent to the child’s wishes. Essentially, a child’s parenting time simply has to do with what is best for him or her; the parenting ability of each parent has some bearing on parenting time, but not as much as with legal decision-making. 

One parent having sole parenting time is much more prevalent than sole legal decision-making. The courts in Arizona start with the presumption that children benefit from having both parents involved in their lives. Even when one parent has sole physical custody, that parent has to convince the court that the other parent should not have legal decision-making power. 

Different Arrangements

There are countless ways that co-parents and family courts in Arizona can structure an overall parenting plan. If both parents want to see the child equally or nearly equally, and they both agree that is what’s best for the child, then they can have the child live one week, two weeks, one month, or more at one parent’s house and alternate between residences. Other times, one parent may have the child for the summer and holidays while the other parent houses the child so there is educational continuity for the child. 

an image of a child holding a paper cutout of a family

When it comes to legal decision-making, both parents often have at least some authority unless one parent has a criminal record, mental illness, substance abuse problem, or other serious issues. If two co-parents disagree on a major decision involving the child’s life (such as whether or not the child should be baptized), there might be an arrangement in which one parent has the final say on such matters (after taking the other parent’s opinion into account). Other times, the parents might have to go to court. 

Co-Parenting and Immigration Status

The question of legal decision-making and parenting time gets pretty interesting when complex immigration issues are at hand. Immigration status is not mentioned among the best interests of the child's standards. However, there could be ramifications for those living in the country illegally who attempt to legally assert parenting time and legal decision-making. 

It can get tricky even for noncitizens who are otherwise legally residing in the U.S. If the other parent really wanted to have sole parental rights with a child, he or she might be motivated to make bogus claims of domestic violence or trespassing in order to have the noncitizen parent deported—many types of visas are revoked if the holder is charged or convicted of certain crimes. 

We Can Help

Child custody, as it is commonly referred to in Arizona, conjures up emotions like no other legal matter. It is frequently the most contentious part of a divorce, and unmarried parents can also become ensnared in intense disputes associated with parenting time and legal decision-making. 

The Glendale child custody lawyers at Monahan Law Firm offer compassionate, sensitive, and effective legal services for a variety of family law practices. Reach out to us soon to discuss your options with our team.

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Attorney Patrick Monahan

Patrick Monahan

Patrick Monahan is the managing partner of Monahan Law Firm, PLC. Patrick began his legal career practicing real estate, construction, and general business litigation.
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