Physical Custody, Parenting Time, Parental Responsibilities: Does It Really Matter What We Call It

Mother lying with two children all smiling

Different jurisdictions—even those with very similar “child custody” laws—use different terminology to refer to the time a parent spends with their children and the parent’s responsibilities during that time. Some states still use the term physical custody, while others have updated their legislative framework to call it parenting time or some variation of parental responsibilities.

For the purpose of exploring these different terms and what they mean, we will look at Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado—three neighboring states with very similar statutory framework. This comparison is illustrative only. We do not currently have any full-time attorneys licensed in New Mexico or Colorado.

Arizona calls it parenting time

In 2012, Arizona enacted major changes to its legislation to remove the term “custody” and redefine the encompassed parental rights as “legal decision-making” and “parenting time.” Prior to the changes, these were referred to as legal custody and physical custody. Those involved in the changes believed that terminological clarity would help parents and even their attorneys better understand the exact rights and responsibilities at issue in these cases. Spoiler alert: it really has not had that impact.

Today, parenting time is defined as "the schedule of time during which each parent has access to a child at specified times.” During their parenting time, each parent is responsible for providing the child with food, clothing and shelter and may make routine decisions concerning the child’s care.

One of the biggest problems with this definition is that the term “routine decisions” is not defined anywhere else. This frequently leads to confusion and conflict between parents. Very generally, this is typically interpreted to refer to things like curfews, rules of the house, access to electronics or screen time, discipline, diet, and other day-to-day aspects of raising children. We would say it is probably easier to define what is not a routine decision: medical, educational, and religious decisions; however, Arizona’s definition of legal decision-making (formerly legal custody) broadly includes “personal care decisions.” Suffice to say, the terminological changes probably invited as many new questions as they resolved.

New Mexico and Colorado

New Mexico still uses the term custody, but also integrates parental responsibilities. Specifically, the New Mexico statutes refer to the physical custody component as period of responsibility. Colorado changed custody to parental responsibilities in 1999.

Semantics aside, these terms all refer to the same legal concept. That is the time children spend with each parent and the parent’s rights and responsibilities regarding the care of the children during that time.

Child's Best Interests

Despite different terminology, family courts in Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado consider similar factors when determining parenting schedules. The primary consideration in these and most other states is the best interests of the child. Family courts look at factors such as the child's age, health, relationship with each parent, and the stability of the home environment. These factors are considered in a gender-neutral way to prohibit any bias in that regard.

Legal fathers have the same rights as mothers

Implications of Parenting Schedules

Besides just the obvious impact the parenting schedule can have on the parent-child relationship, the schedule can dramatically affect child support. In Arizona specifically, parenting time actually can have a greater impact on child support than the difference between parents’ incomes. Unfortunately, this can lead to dubious motives in contested parenting time cases. Some parents may seek to restrict the other parent’s parenting time to increase child support. Other parents may seek parenting time beyond what would be in the child’s best interests just to reduce their child support obligation. In either scenario, the children may be adversely impacted.


No matter what you call it, physical custody is a critical and often hotly contested issue in divorces or other litigation involving children. physical custody determines where the child will primarily reside and with whom they will spend the majority of their time. It's essential for parents to understand the implications of physical custody and work towards arrangements that prioritize the best interests of their children, fostering healthy relationships and providing stability during times of transition. Ultimately, while custody decisions can be challenging, focusing on the well-being of the children involved is paramount. We can help with this. Our child custody attorneys have helped hundreds of families establish, modify, and enforce parental rights. So do not hesitate to contact us to schedule a free initial consultation.