What Does Legal Custody of a Child Mean?

One of the biggest challenges facing parents when they decide to end their marriage is what will happen to the children of the relationship. Most parents understand that they will have to decide on living arrangements and a visitation schedule for the children, by assigning a time share to each parent. Physical custody of the children can be difficult to agree on, but with the help of an experienced mediator, parents can discuss which situation is in the best interest of the children and who the primary caretaker should be. Physical custody can be sole (when children live with one of the parents all of the time), or joint when the children spend any time whatsoever with the non-custodial parent. Having said that, most parents don’t realize that besides assigning physical custody responsibilities, they must also decide and agree on how to share the legal custody of their children.

Parents who have legal custody of their children get to make many important decisions regarding their children’s lives, including choosing schools, child care providers, doctors, dentists, orthodontists, psychologists or other health care professionals, religious affiliations and activities, extracurricular activities, sports enrollment, summer camps, etc. Just like physical custody, legal custody can either be sole or joint. In many cases, California courts favor joint legal custody as they consider it to be in the best interest of the children, and they encourage parents who make these types of legal decisions together, if even parents do not share joint physical custody of their children. While joint legal custody arrangements imply that shared decisions about health, education and welfare of the children is in their best interest, they are not always easy to practice on a daily basis, since by their very nature they require a great deal of cooperation and compromise between parents. Sometimes parents will face challenges as their lives after divorce evolves. For example, if a parent decides to move to a different school district and give the children the opportunity to attend better schools, the other parent needs to agree on the new school choices before the move can occur. While parents do not have to agree about every single decision, ongoing conflict or friction may lead one of the parents to go back to court and request a family court judge to rule on specific legal matters. Sometimes, a judge may decide to assign a few legal decisions to only one parent, while giving both parents sharing equal responsibilities for other legal decisions. For example, such an individualized legal custody arrangement may work best when it comes to making health care decisions for the children if one of the parents has more time available to research and decide on the most appropriate medical or dental care providers and will be the one taking the children to these recurring appointments.

While most parents focus on how to share physical custody, they tend to neglect the implications of a child’s legal custody. During the divorce mediation process, the mediator will go over the legal repercussions of shared legal custody to make sure parents understand their responsibilities when it comes to their children’s schooling, medical care, extracurricular schedule and religious upbringing. The divorce mediator will help parents identify any area of possible conflict that may occur after the divorce so that by the time they reach an agreement, parents will be comfortable in sharing important decisions about their children’s lives.