Generally, when people think of “child custody,” their minds go to the actual physical custody of the minor children. In Arizona family law, custody refers to two different concepts: legal decision-making (legal custody) and parenting time (physical custody).

When a court makes rulings or orders regarding legal decision-making or parenting time, it will always seek to act in the best interests of the minor children. This means that the court will consider the factors that are most relevant to the minor children’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

It is possible for parents to work together amicably, either on their own or with the assistance of their attorneys, to reach a child custody arrangement that will be in the best interest of everyone involved. However, when parents fail to reach agreements regarding custody, the issue will be left to the court to enter a ruling in the best interest of the minor children.

The Stress of Custody Battles

Child custody battles in court tend to get tough, even messy in some cases. They can drain your energy while simultaneously draining your bank account. When parents work together to reach an agreement regarding legal decision-making and parenting time, they can save money, time, and effort, while also laying a positive foundation to their co-parenting relationship.

If the parents are unable to come to an agreement, the judge will have to take matters into her own hands. As mentioned above, a court will consider certain factors when deciding what is best for the minor children. The factors may vary from state-to-state, or even from judge-to-judge based on her own beliefs about what is best for the children.

Here in Arizona, the Court reviews Arizona Revised Statutes (A.R.S.) §25-403, which outlines several factors as relevant to a child’s physical and emotional well-being, including:

  • The child’s relationship with both parents, siblings, and others who may significantly affect the child
  • Whether the child has adjusted to and is flourishing in the current environment
  • Your preferences as well as your child’s preferences
  • Overall mental and physical health of all parties involved


It is nearly always more advantageous to resolve custody issues outside of the courtroom, but both parents have to be willing to compromise and similarly consider the factors above in order to come to an agreement that is most beneficial to the children.

Types of Legal Decision-Making (Legal Custody) and Parenting Time (Physical Custody)

While we have discussed the difference between legal custody and physical custody, it is important to note that there are also distinctions within both legal decision-making and parenting time. Any agreement between parents must address both types of custody.

Legal decision-making (legal custody) covers making important decisions about the upbringing of the children, including their education, religion, and health care among other things.

Parenting time (physical custody), on the other hand, determines the primary residence, as well as the everyday caretaking responsibilities for the children. Providing food, shelter, clothing, and other basic needs of the children will be the responsibility of the parent or parents who have physical custody.

Both legal decision-making and parenting time can be considered either sole or joint, or a combination of both.

If, for example, Parent A and Parent B agree to joint legal decision-making, Parent A cannot exclude Parent B from the decision-making process, or it could mean another court battle for violating the terms of the parenting agreement.

To use another example, if Parent A and Parent B agree to equal parenting time (a form of joint custody), but Parent B holds sole legal decision-making authority, Parent B cannot legally keep Parent A from enjoying parenting time with the children; but Parent B can make a legal decision even if Parent A does not agree with that decision.

In Arizona, the starting point is joint legal decision-making and equal parenting time. It is generally assumed to be more beneficial to children’s health and happiness to spend an equal amount of time with both parents. However, this starting point may shift depending on the fitness of either parent, logistical issues, or instances of domestic violence.

All the above can seem overwhelming and complex given that each divorce or child custody dispute is unique with its own set of circumstances. Contact The Peterson Law Firm today for a free consultation to review your matter with one of our attorneys.


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