Child Custody and Child Visitation – Terms You Need to Know

Definitions of Arrangements

Our Southwestern Pennsylvania child custody clients often ask us to clarify the difference between the legal terminologies used in child custody matters. Our blog today will provide the basic terms used in Pennsylvania courts and in child custody orders.

Physical Custody

Physical custody can be granted solely to one parent or shared jointly between parents. Pennsylvania courts generally look at physical custody in terms of “overnights” – or where the children are sleeping each night for physical custody schedules. A physical custody schedule can include a custody schedule that can be customized for each case, including different schedules for weekdays versus weekends, or school year versus summer schedules. A physical custody order can also address holidays, vacation time, and extracurricular activities for the children.  Physical custody of your child can take the form of:

  • Shared physical custody: This means that each parent is spending significant time with the child and the parents are sharing parenting responsibilities.
  • Primary physical custody: This means that one parent spends significant time with the child and that parent is considered the primary caregiver. This does not mean that the other parent is unable to see the child, but that the primary physical custodian spends the majority of time with the child.
  • Sole physical custody: In rare circumstances, one parent may be granted sole physical custody of the children. This is usually done on a temporary basis.

Legal Custody

Legal custody in Pennsylvania child custody matters refers to decision-making for the children. This can include, but is not limited to, decisions regarding education, medical treatment, religion, and extracurricular activities. Legal custody can be:

  • Shared legal custody: In a majority of cases, parents will share legal custody. This means that they will jointly make decisions regarding what is in the best interests of their children. This requires that parents discuss these decisions together prior to implementing them.
  • Sole legal custody: In rare circumstances, one parent may be granted sole legal custody, or have sole authority to make decisions on behalf of the children.


Visitation” in the child custody context means spending limited time with the children, sometimes only once or twice per week for a few hours at a time. Visitation is often ordered for the non-custodial parent when the custodial parent is exercising primary physical custody.

Supervised visitation is ordered in a custody matter where there are issues with either parent spending time alone with the children. The “supervisor” can be another family member, a person mutually agreed upon by the parties, or a court-ordered supervisor such as a sheriff, law enforcement officer, or another court-appointed official.

Have questions about what terminology to use in your child custody order? Our attorneys are experienced in drafting custody orders that are tailored to your individual family, taking into consideration what is in the best interests of your children. Contact us today to discuss drafting or reviewing your Pennsylvania child custody order.

About McGrail & Associates

The lawyers of McGrail and Associates, LLC, offer individualized attention in many areas of the law, including divorce, family law, municipal and tax law, bankruptcy, estate planning and criminal defense. Attorneys at McGrail and Associates, which was founded by Patricia L. McGrail in 2000, have practiced in all of the state and federal court systems.