People often use the terms physical placement, visitation rights, and child custody interchangeably in the context of divorce, legal separation, paternity, and related matters. Under Wisconsin law, however, each of these terms has a distinct, specific meaning.
Parents frequently use the term child custody to describe how a child’s time is divided between the parents, or which parent the child will live with for the majority of the time. The law, however, gives this term a different and very specific meaning. Legal custody is the right to make certain important decisions for a child. The Wisconsin Family Code defines “legal custody” as “the right and responsibility to make major decisions concerning the child,” and defines “major decisions” as including “consent to marry, consent to enter military service, consent to obtain a motor vehicle operator’s license, authorization for non-emergency health care, and choice of school and religion.” Thus custody has nothing to do with where the child lives or spends time.
Often the most important issue for separating parents is where the children will spend their time. Wisconsin law calls this physical placement. If your court order allows you to have your children with you every Tuesday and every other weekend, for example, then those are your periods of physical placement with your children. If you have physical placement periods, then you also have the right to make routine, day-to-day decisions concerning your children during those placement periods. The right to make major decisions, however, is the separate issue of legal custody, as described above.
Finally, the term visitation also has a specific and narrow definition. Sometimes, under limited circumstances, a non-parent – usually a relative or a step-parent – is given the right to spend time with a child. Wisconsin law calls this visitation rights.