Custody & Visitation Law

Legal Custody

There are many different terms used in the child custody process. Depending on the state you live in, some terms are interchangeable, or they have a completely different meaning compared to the state next door to yours.

But the most important term that parents typically care about is “legal custody,” the child custody designation of who gets to make major decisions. In general, there are two types of legal custody: sole custody and joint custody.

This article is not going to go in-depth on joint legal custody or sole legal custody or the other type of custody: physical custody. However, it is important to have some basic information. If you have more questions, you should talk to a family law attorney near you.

Simply put, in the broadest terms, “legal custody” refers to the parent(s) or guardian(s) who have the authority to make the major decisions affecting a child’s life. These decisions can include:

  • Where your child lives
  • Where your child goes to school
  • What religious upbringing your child will receive
  • What medical care your child receives

Legal custody does not necessarily refer to the decisions that parents and guardians have to make on day-to-day things, like what time your child must do their homework.

Legal custody is also not who has physical care of the child. That term is typically “physical custody.”

Joint legal custody is when both parents have equal decision-making ability on the important decisions listed above. The hallmark of making a joint legal custody arrangement work is healthy communication. You and your child’s other parent must agree on these important decisions. If you cannot, each decision will typically involve a family court judge ordering something to happen. Either parent can seek court intervention when there is a disagreement.

Sole legal custody is an arrangement where only one parent makes these important decisions. The non-custodial parent does not get a say in these decisions, but that does not mean they are not entitled to be kept informed.

In fact, it is the responsibility of the sole custodian to keep their co-parent informed of all major decisions they make on behalf of their child. Typically, the non-custodial parent is also able to communicate directly with medical providers and school personnel and have open access to medical records and school records. They just cannot make any major decisions on behalf of their child.

Parents can have joint legal custody and a co-parent has restricted parenting time. Or your parenting plan may not include equal physical time with your child. One parent may even have sole legal custody, but your parenting plan may have near equal physical time with your child.

In short: Decision-making authority for your child does not necessarily affect how much time you or your co-parent gets to spend with your child. However, family courts across the U.S. will always rely on factors such as the child’s best interests and safety will affect both decision-making and parenting time.

Get an Attorney’s Help With Child Custody Matters

If you have questions on how your state handles child custody cases and how legal custody is determined, speak with an experienced child custody attorney in your area.

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