Child Custody: Joint Legal Custody vs. Sole Legal Custody

One of the toughest decisions that you will likely have to make concerns child custody and a parenting plan. The first major question is whether you and your spouse plan to share custody (joint custody), or if one parent will be responsible for your children (sole custody).

Joint custody (joint legal custody) is one of the most misunderstood concepts in child custody cases. Contrary to popular belief, joint custody does not require equal time or equal money. Instead, it means that parents share major decisions for the five main issues concerning their child: residence; education or day care; non-emergency medical, dental, eye, or psychological care; religion; and recreation. If you and your former spouse have joint custody, neither of you can change anything about these areas without each other’s permission without a court order.

  • Residence means the community in which your child lives. Residence is defined at the city level rather than by street address.
  • Education/Day Care refers to the school or day care your child will attend. This includes whether your child goes to public or private school or will be home schooled, as well as who will provide care before and after school or when school is out.
  • Non-emergency medical, dental, eye, or psychological care means which providers will provide your child’s primary care. When possible, these providers should be the same as when you and your spouse were together. If a new provider must be chosen, it must be a joint decision.
  • Religion specifies what belief system your child will be taught and what religious organization he or For she will belong to. Whatever religion you and your spouse followed prior to the divorce will be considered your child’s religion until you agree otherwise. For some children, that means no religion is declared.
  • Recreation means any regularly scheduled activity, including classes, meetings, practice times, or games. Enrolling your child in a recreational activity requires approval from both you and your spouse. For example, if you want to enroll your child in soccer, your spouse must first agree. This requirement helps make sure that you will both be responsible for seeing that your child goes to all events while he or she is living with you.

Sole custody (sole legal custody) gives one parent full control over decisions made about the five main areas of the child’s life. Sole custody is usually recommended when one parent cannot participate in decision-making completely, such as when he or she is seriously ill (physically or mentally) and/or living too far way to make communication practical. With sole legal custody, you would have full decision-making power for your child, as long as any changes made do not interfere with any time-sharing arrangement you have with the other parent.

Once you have determined whether you are seeking joint custody or sole custody, the second major question that you will need to decide is what type of time-sharing plan you and your spouse plan to keep. For more information, see Time-Sharing Guidelines-Factors to Consider for Co-Parenting After Divorce and Developing a Plan for Parenting After Divorce.

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