Helping parents or guardians understand legal vs physical custody is a common part of our work as we walk with families and individuals through the divorce process.

Legal And Physical Custody in Minnesota: Key Points

  • Legal custody refers to major decisions regarding your child, including their health, education, and religious upbringing.

  • Physical custody refers to the main residence, care, and control of the minor child.

  • Legal custody can be either “sole” or “joint.” If the parties are awarded joint legal custody, it means that they both have the equal right to make decisions regarding any of the major issues concerning the child. If one party is awarded sole legal custody, it means that he or she has the exclusive and sole authority to make the major decisions regarding the minor child.

  • There is a legal presumption in Minnesota that joint legal custody is in the best interests of a minor child unless that presumption is rebutted by the other party (e.g. showing that there was domestic abuse in the relationship.).

Children at school playing outdoors.

Physical and Legal Custody Explained

Legal and physical custody don’t always go hand-in-hand. Physical custody determines where the child lives and how they spend their time – essentially, their physical control. Legal custody is generally split equally between parents, with Minnesota courts assuming by default that both parents should have a say over the large, long-term decisions in their life that impact health, education, or religion.

Physical custody can be thought of in terms of the “day-to-day care” of the child. The award of physical custody is determined by an analysis of the “best interests” of the minor child, for which the Court considers the twelve statutory best interest factors (see below for details).

Legal custody and physical custody sometimes look like this: one parent has a majority of physical custody (with the child living in their home) to be close to a particular school. But the parents may have jointly agreed (thanks to joint legal custody) that the child attend a particular religious school and adhere to a particular diet, participates in particular extracurricular activities, or receives particular medical care.

Through a parenting plan, the child may then spend weekends with the parent who does not have primary physical custody. The difference between legal and physical custody largely boils down to where the children live and spend their time.

What Is Joint Custody?

Parenting parties commonly also choose to agree to an award of custody, where the parents share custody.

“Joint physical custody” means that the minor child is spending approximately an equal amount of time with both parents at different residences. Physical custody is often shared by both parents as joint physical custody. Judges often grant joint physical custody when the parents live close to each other and get along well.

What Is Sole Custody?

In contrast, sole physical custody means that one parent gets primary custody of the child. The other parent is granted parenting time with the child so they can spend time together.

Importantly, the amount of parenting time granted is also used to calculate the amount of child support that the non-custodial parent has to pay as part of calculating child support in MN.

Even in an amicable divorce, coming to an agreement on child custody can pose significant challenges. With the help of an experienced Minnesota divorce attorney, you can ensure that your children’s best interests are met.

What Is The Meaning of Legal Custodian?

A legal custodian refers to an individual or entity that has the legal responsibility and authority to care for and make decisions on behalf of another person, typically a minor child. This can include decisions related to the child’s education, health care, upbringing, and more.

Can I Move Out of Minnesota If I Have Sole Custody?

In general, if you have sole custody of your child in Minnesota, it doesn’t automatically mean you can move out of state with the child. If you have sole physical custody, but not sole legal custody, you cannot make this large decision without the consent of the child’s joint legal guardian, in most cases the other parent.

Minnesota law requires the custodial parent to provide notice to the noncustodial parent if they intend to move out of state with the child. This notice usually has to be given in writing a certain number of days before the intended move. If the noncustodial parent objects, then the custodial parent must seek court approval to move out of state with the child.

If both parents agree on the move, the process can be easy; however, it’s a good idea to have any agreement in writing and, if possible, approved by the court to avoid potential disputes in the future.

If you’re considering moving out of state with your child, it’s crucial to consult a good family law attorney in Minnesota. Alithis Family Law can provide guidance tailored to your situation.

Who Wins Most Child Custody Cases in Minnesota?

Courts typically prioritize the “best interests of the child” above all else when making custody decisions.

The definition of “best interests” varies by jurisdiction (you can see Minnesota’s below) but generally includes considerations of the child’s safety, emotional well-being, the stability of the living environment, each parent’s financial and safety capabilities, and the child’s own wishes depending on age and maturity.

Over the past few decades, there has been a noticeable trend toward promoting joint legal custody, where both parents are actively involved in the child’s life. This reflects a broader cultural recognition of the importance of both parents in a child’s upbringing, irrespective of their marital status.

What Does The Minnesota Court Consider A Child’s “Best Interests”?

According to Minn. Stat. § 518.17, Subd. 1, the 12 best interests of the child include:

  • (1) a child’s physical, emotional, cultural, spiritual, and other needs, and the effect of the proposed arrangements on the child’s needs and development;

  • (2) any special medical, mental health, developmental disability, or educational needs that the child may have that may require special parenting arrangements or access to recommended services;

  • (3) the reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient ability, age, and maturity to express an independent, reliable preference;

  • (4) whether domestic abuse, as defined in section 518B.01, has occurred in the parents’ or either parent’s household or relationship; the nature and context of the domestic abuse; and the implications of the domestic abuse for parenting and for the child’s safety, well-being, and developmental needs;

  • (5) any physical, mental, or chemical health issue of a parent that affects the child’s safety or developmental needs;

  • (6) the history and nature of each parent’s participation in providing care for the child;

  • (7) the willingness and ability of each parent to provide ongoing care for the child; to meet the child’s ongoing developmental, emotional, spiritual, and cultural needs; and to maintain consistency and follow through with parenting time;

  • (8) the effect on the child’s well-being and development of changes to home, school, and community;

  • (9) the effect of the proposed arrangements on the ongoing relationships between the child and each parent, siblings, and other significant persons in the child’s life;

  • (10) the benefit to the child in maximizing parenting time with both parents and the detriment to the child in limiting parenting time with either parent;

  • (11) except in cases in which domestic abuse as described in clause (4) has occurred, the disposition of each parent to support the child’s relationship with the other parent and to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between the child and the other parent; and

  • (12) the willingness and ability of parents to cooperate in the rearing of their child; to maximize sharing information and minimize exposure of the child to parental conflict; and to utilize methods for resolving disputes regarding any major decision concerning the life of the child.

Get In Touch Today to Learn More About Your Rights With a Free Family Law Consultation

At Alithis Family Law, our lawyers pride themselves on how they serve our clients. Please reach out today for your free consultation—you can call our office at (952) 800-2025 or contact us by email at

Contact Us