Legal Custody

Physical and legal custody are two important aspects of raising children when parents are divorced. There are various types of custody arrangements that can be made to suit the needs of the child; and when conditions change, keep in mind that you may ask the court to modify a child custody arrangement. It's important that both parents involved understand the meaning of legal custody, how it relates to physical custody, and how parents are bound by their custody agreement to their children.

Most people understand what physical custody means, i.e. where the child will physically live (visitation rights may be made for most noncustodial parents without physical custody). However, many don't realize that physical custody is not the only kind of child custody arrangement available.

Legal custody covers major decision-making responsibilities affecting the children, including religious education, choice of schools, tutoring, cultural education, extracurricular activities, health care, and more.

What Is Legal Custody?

"Legal custody" gives a parent the right to make long-term decisions about the raising of a child, and key aspects of the child's welfare -- including the child's education, medical care, dental care, and religious instruction.

In most child custody cases, legal custody is awarded to both parents (called "joint legal custody"), unless it is shown that one parent is somehow unfit, or is 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, which is focused on what's best for the child (not the parents). "Physical custody," meanwhile, relates to where the child will live.

What Is Sole Legal Custody?

If you have sole legal custody of your child you can make all decisions regarding such issues as schooling, religion, medical care and housing. You may not have to take into consideration the wishes or opinions of the other parent regarding your child's upbringing. Keep in mind; most states prefer awarding joint legal custody based on the best interests of the child.

Joint or Sole Legal Custody Examples

Joint Legal Custody Example: Mother and Father have divorced, and share legal custody of Child. This means that Mother and Father share equally in making important decisions concerning Child's upbringing and welfare.

Sole Legal Custody Example: Mother and Father have divorced, due in large part to Father's substance abuse and addiction. Mother seeks and is granted legal custody of Child. This means that Mother alone has legal authority to decide key issues related to Child's upbringing, and Father has no legal right to participate in the decision-making process.

Get Help with Your Legal Custody Dispute

Custody disputes can be 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, particularly since the other parent likely will seek representation as well. Get started today and find a family law attorney near you.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified child custody attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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