Understanding legal and physical child custody in Virginia

People in Virginia may be awarded physical or legal custody of their kids, granting them control of their care or decision-making authority.

When people in Virginia and elsewhere divorce, their one household becomes two. For those with children, this may raise issues regarding their care, maintenance and control. Should parents be unable to reach a custodial arrangement on their own, the court may be called on to make a custody determination. In order to best understand their rights and responsibilities, it is important for people to be familiar with the types of child custody.

Legal custody


Until they are of age to make decisions for themselves, the responsibility falls to children's parents. Legal custody grants people decision-making authority over their children. Thus, they are able to make choices regarding their kids' upbringing, including their health and education. In an effort to encourage both parents to share their child-rearing responsibilities, the court often awards joint legal custody to biological and adoptive parents. Similar to legal custody, legal guardianship grants people who are not a child's parents the right to make decisions on their behalf. Though, it alone does not sever the legal parental-child relationship.

Until the births of their children, men's rights are limited. They may request genetic testing for the purposes of establishing paternity or sign a voluntary acknowledgment. Additionally, men may have the right to object to their babies being placed up for adoption. They do not, however, have the right to prevent their unborn children's mothers from having an abortion or to force them to have one. Further, they do not generally have much, if any, say in the mothers' prenatal care or birth plan.

Physical custody

Physical custody refers to the physical and custodial care of children, and it may be awarded to biological or adoptive parents or, in rare situations, third parties. When parents share joint physical custody, their children may spend a portion of their time living with each of them. People may work together or obtain assistance to create parenting plans that specify when their child will be with each parent. Fathers of unborn children cannot pursue joint physical custody before their babies' births. However, they may establish custody agreements to go into effect once the babies are born with the mothers' consent.

In cases when people have more than one child, they may share joint physical custody for all their kids. With few exceptions, all the children are typically kept on the same parenting time schedule. The court is generally hesitant to separate siblings, however, split physical custody arrangements may be permitted when they are in the family's best interests.

The best interests of the child

When the decision falls to the court, judges may consider numerous factors to make their determinations. These include the following:

  • Each parent and the child's age, physical condition and mental health
  • The existing parent-child relationships
  • Each parent's role up to that point in the child's upbringing and care
  • The likelihood of each parent facilitating ongoing contact with the child's other parent
  • The child's needs

Under some circumstances, and if they are deemed of sound understanding and intelligence, the court may take into account the reasonable preferences of older children who are still minors.

Obtaining legal assistance

Child custody issues in Virginia may be difficult for the entire family. To help limit the associated upset and fallout, many wish to resolve these disputes as expediently, efficiently and amicably as possible. Therefore, those who are considering divorce or who are otherwise involved in custody problems may find it helpful to discuss their rights and options with an attorney. A lawyer may guide them through the process and help negotiate on their behalf.