Wisconsin Child Custody Laws: What’s the Difference Between Physical and Legal Custody?

On behalf of Peterson, Berk & Cross, S.C.

When it comes to child custody laws in Wisconsin, things can get confusing. One of the most important distinctions is between physical and legal custody. Understanding the differences between these two types of custody can help you make informed decisions about your family’s future. In this blog post, we’ll break down everything you need to know about physical and legal custody in Wisconsin so that you can feel confident moving forward with your case.

What is Physical Custody?

In Wisconsin, the “physical custody” has been replaced by the term “physical placement”, and refers to where the child lives. The parent with whom the child lives is said to have “primary physical custody.” The other parent has “secondary physical custody.” If the parents share joint physical custody, then the child lives with both parents an equal amount of time.

If one parent has primary physical custody and the other has secondary physical custody, it means that the child spends more time living with the parent who has primary custody. The amount of time the child spends with each parent is determined by the court.

The court will consider many factors when making a decision about who should have primary physical custody of a child. These factors include:

• Which parent is more likely to allow frequent and continuing contact between the child and the other parent?

• Which parent is more likely to encourage and permit such contact?

• The distance between the homes of the parents

• The age and developmental needs of the child

• The relationship of each parent with the child

• Each parent’s ability to provide for the needs of the child, including food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education and recreation

• The employment schedule of each parent

• Each parent’s mental and physical health

• Any history of abuse by either parent

What is Legal Custody?

While physical custody refers to where the child will live, legal custody refers to who has the right to make major decisions about the child’s welfare, including education, healthcare, and religious upbringing.

Like physical custody, legal custody can be sole or joint. Joint legal custody means that both parents have equal say in decision-making. Sole legal custody means that only one parent has the right to make decisions about the child’s welfare. In general, courts prefer to award joint legal custody unless there is a good reason to believe that one parent is not capable of making sound decisions about the child’s welfare.

Factors Used to Determine Custody in Wisconsin

When making custody decisions, Wisconsin courts will consider the best interests of the child. To determine what is in the best interests of the child, courts will look at a number of factors. These factors include:

-The wishes of the child’s parents

-The child’s adjustment to his or her home, school, and community

-The amount of contact the child has with each parent

-The ability of each parent to meet the child’s physical and emotional needs

-The stability of each parent’s home environment

-Each parent’s ability to provide a consistent routine for the child

– Each parent’s employment schedule and ability to care for the child during non-work hours

– Any special needs of the child

This is not an exhaustive list, but it gives you an idea of some of the things that courts will take into account when making their decision.


In conclusion, it is important to be aware of the differences between physical and legal custody in Wisconsin. Physical custody refers to which parent a child resides with, while legal custody allows for both parents to make decisions regarding their child’s upbringing. Guidance from an expert child custody attorney can help you understand the nuances between physical and legal custody and will help ensure your rights, as well as those of your children, are protected under Wisconsin law.