Legal custody refers to the right and the responsibility to make decisions relating to the health, education, and welfare of a child. A parent with legal custody can make decisions about issues such as the child’s schooling, religious upbringing and medical care.
If parents have joint legal custody, they are obligated to confer with each other when making decisions about health, education and welfare. When parents share joint legal custody under a court order, the order may specify the circumstances under which the consent of both parents is required. If the order does not require joint consent, either parent acting alone may make legal custody decisions, but the parent can not make a decision that would negatively impact the other parent’s time with the child. For example, if the order specifies that both parents’ consent is required to take a child to a specific doctor, neither parent can take the child over the other parent’s objection. If the order does not specify that both parents’ consent is required, then the parent who wants to take the child to counseling must confer with the other parent, but then can make the decision alone. While this may be permissible, in most cases, it is generally not a good idea to make unilateral decisions about important matters in your child’s life.
Physical custody, also referred to as “parenting time,” refers to the periods during which a parent physically cares for the child. Joint physical custody refers to any parenting arrangement under which the child has “substantial time” with both parents; it does not always mean a 50-50 timeshare between the parents. While there is a presumption that joint custody is in the best interests of children, the actual timeshare must also take into account school and work schedules, as well as many other factors specific to a given family.
Finding What Works
Every family is different, and a plan that could work for one pair of parents might be terrible for another. When your custody arrangements are court ordered, many variables are taken into account. The same goes for a custody agreement formed outside of court. The important thing, regardless of whether there is contention or accord, is to find a professional who can help you reach a clear and reasonable agreement regarding both legal and physical custody.