The distinction between the terms “physical custody” and “legal custody” is one of the most frequently confused and misunderstood aspects of divorce in the state of Tennessee. This distinction is important in child custody disputes because physical custody is often divided, with children spending equal or unequal amounts of time living with each parent. Legal custody, on the other hand, is usually assigned to both parents and remains constant.
The difference between the two? A parent who has physical custody of a child (i.e., the child is staying at his or her house) gets to make decisions about the child’s day-to-day living arrangements without input from the other parent. When parents share legal custody, however, they have to make joint decisions about matters involving the child’s health, education, religious upbringing and other major issues. If parents can’t agree, each can seek to have a judge rule on the dispute.
What they cannot do — as one Shelby County mother discovered this week — is ignore an ex-spouse’s preferences (and definitely not a court order!) and make unilateral decisions on those types of issues.
What happened? In short, the divorced, Methodist father of two children wanted to hold off on baptizing the kids until they were older. The divorced, Presbyterian mother did not. The two couldn’t reach an agreement and the father obtained a court order prohibiting his former spouse from following through on her wishes.
She had the kids baptized anyway and is now facing up to 10 days in jail for that decision. Both she and her attorney believe the parenting plan shouldn’t include religion and claim that it is a violation of her civil rights.
Source: WREG News 3, “Mother Could Face Jail Time for Baptizing Her Children,” Daniel Hight, March 30, 2012