What is Legal Custody?

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  • Written By: Jim B.
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 17 December 2019
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Legal custody refers to the right of a parent who is divorced or separated from the other parent of their child to make major decisions in the child's life. This right differs from physical custody, which refers to the parent with whom the child resides. The two primary types of legal custody, which is determined either by agreement between parents or by order of a judge, are joint legal custody, which is an arrangement where both parents share the rights to make the major decisions for their child, and sole legal custody, which is when one parent can make these decisions without input from the other parent. These major decisions include, but are not limited to, the child's schooling, medical care, and religious upbringing.

Any parent that has legal custody of his or her child has the right to make the major decisions in the child's life. This differs from physical custody, which refers to the living arrangements of the child. These two distinct rights can often overlap depending on the situation. For example, one parent can have sole legal custody of the child even while sharing physical custody with the other parent.


Parents who have separated or divorced typically need to reach a custodial agreement to determine the care of their child. If not, a judge will make the determination for them. Taking a custody case to court, which can be a costly route to take due to the necessity of legal representation, generally is only the case when extreme animosity exists between the parents or if one parent thinks the other is unfit. Joint custody is a court's usual determination when custody cases arise, with the exception being cases where one parent is deemed unfit. In the case of joint custody, if one parent excludes the other from the decision-making process, the excluded parent can bring these actions before the court and the other parent can be found in contempt of court.

Any parent with sole legal custody has the right to make major life decisions on his or her child's behalf. These decisions include everyday concerns, such as non-emergency medical and dental care, religious upbringing, and where the child will attend school. Other specific examples of such major decisions can involve parental consent to allow the child to marry, obtain a driver's license, or join the military. Parents who lack legal custody cannot make such major decisions, but that doesn't prohibit them from making routine decisions while the child is in their care, such as the child's feeding schedule or bedtime.


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