Legal Custody

Physical and legal custody are two important aspects of raising children when parents divorce or separate. Various types of custody arrangements can suit the child's needs. 

When conditions change, remember that you may ask the court to modify a child custody arrangement.

Physical custody refers to where the child will live physically. The court may grant visitation rights to non-custodial parents who do not have physical custody. However, many people do not realize that physical custody is not the only type of child custody arrangement available.

Legal custody covers major decision-making responsibilities affecting the children. This can include religion, education, choice of schools, tutoring, extracurricular activities, and health care. In short, legal custody refers to a parent's right to make important decisions affecting the child.

This article provides a brief overview of legal custody.

What Is Legal Custody?

Legal custody gives a parent the right to make long-term decisions about raising a child. This includes the right to make major decisions about the child's welfare. This can include the child's education, medical care, dental care, and religious instruction.

In some child custody cases, the court will award legal custody to both parents who were previously married. This arrangement is called "joint legal custody." Most courts choose this arrangement unless it is shown that one parent is somehow unfit or incapable of making decisions about the child's upbringing. A history of drug abuse, domestic violence, or child neglect would play a role in this decision, focusing on what's best for the child (not the parents).

"Physical custody," meanwhile, relates to where the child lives. Joint physical custody arrangements allow children to split their time between each parent's home. This is different from one parent having visitation rights.

What Is Sole Legal Custody?

If one parent is found unfit, the other parent may be granted sole legal custody. If you have sole legal custody of your child, you can make all decisions regarding issues such as schooling, religion, medical care, and housing. You may not have to consider the wishes or opinions of the other parent regarding your child's upbringing. Most states prefer awarding joint legal custody based on the best interests of the child.

What Is the 'Best Interests of the Child' Standard?

In determining legal custody, family court judges will take into consideration what is in the best interests of the child. This means evaluating various factors. Factors might include:

  • The child's relationship with each parent
  • The child's preference (if they are old enough)
  • A history of substance abuse or domestic violence
  • The child's well-being
  • The child's school location

The court may also consider a custody evaluation. The resulting court order or parenting plan will outline decision-making authority, co-parenting arrangements, and parenting time. The court may also award child support as part of the custody order. The court may grant grandparents or other family members custody of a child in certain circumstances.

Ultimately, the primary goal is to ensure the care of the child and their best interests.

Get Help With Your Legal Custody Dispute

Custody disputes are among the most contentious court proceedings possible. Both the complexity of the law and the serious nature of these proceedings can make an attorney's assistance invaluable. An experienced child custody attorney can provide you with helpful legal advice about legal custody and physical custody of your minor child.

Get started today and find a family law attorney near you.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Both parents can seek custody of their children — with or without an attorney
  • An attorney can help get the custody and visitation agreement you want
  • An attorney will advocate for your rights as a parent

A lawyer can help protect your rights and your children's best interests. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child custody arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and provide for your children. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

Start Planning