When parents go through a divorce, they must decide how they will handle their children's affairs moving forward. The law makes this decision easier for them by demanding that parents reach a custody agreement. This legally binding document details both physical and legal custody arrangements. To most people, physical custody is an easy term to grasp. It relates to a parent's right to provide basic care to a child. In addition, the custodial parent gets to live with the child primarily while the non-custodial parent enjoys visitation rights. Given the commonness of such an arrangement, navigating its ins and outs might not be so hard even for a new divorcee.

However, there is another element of custody that both parents must understand- legal custody. In essence, both parents should have this custody which grants them the right to make decisions about their children's lives. Matters like religious beliefs, school choices, and even after-school activities fall into legal custody. Not understanding what this form of custody entails can sour future interactions between the parents. Therefore, getting this out of the way now is a good way to preserve your relationship with your ex and protect your children.

What Is Legal Custody?

You may already know how physical custody works where one or both parents get to house a child. Legal custody, on the other hand, is less physical and instead relates to decision-making rights. The parent with such custody gets a say where the child goes to school, accesses healthcare, and the activities they participate in after school. They also get to weigh in on the child's religious beliefs and their interactions with other people.

Usually, the judge will award legal custody to both parents, allowing them to both have a part in the child's upbringing. However, if one parent is deemed unfit to make the best decisions for the child, the other parent can get sole legal custody. A history of child neglect, spousal or child abuse, and even substance abuse are examples of what can render a parent unfit.

Sole Legal Custody

While a child can benefit more from having both parents included in their upbringing, this is not always possible. For example, if a court deems one parent unfit due to substance abuse, the other parent will get sole legal custody. Per the law, the custodial parent will have the right to decide about the child's wellbeing without consulting the other parent. From medical care to school to religious practices, they would have the final say. Judges do not typically award this form of custody to parents, even in cases of sole physical custody. However, if evidence proves that one parent is unfit, they do not have an option but to rule in favor of the other parent.

Joint Legal Custody

Most court decisions end with both parents having legal custody of their children. It allows both parents to weigh in on matters affecting their children. For example, if the parents want to move the child to another school, they must agree on the best choice. The joint decision-making relates to matters of religion, school, and healthcare, etc. To arrive at decisions that meet the child's best interests, parents must learn to communicate with each other and compromise on their stands.

It is common for parents to try and leave each other out of some decisions. However, the law is clear that breaching a custody agreement amounts to contempt of the court. So, rather than spend time in court and lose your parental rights, you should try and work things out with your ex.

Example of Joint Legal Custody

Mary and George once enjoyed wedded bliss that resulted in the birth of their daughters Leah and Grace. After ten years of marriage, George walked out of the marital home and moved in with his colleague. The divorce was fast and cold, and before long, Mary had physical custody of the children. The judge, though, made it clear that Mary and George shared legal custody of the children.

George later wed his colleague, which angered Mary. She now will not let him visit the children nor make decisions about their lives. Additionally, George fears that Mary may have turned the children against him and worries that he might lose them if more time goes by. On the other hand, Mary feels that once George left the marital home, he lost the right to be in his children's lives.

Such situations where exes are at loggerheads are common. However, Mary is in contempt of the court and could lose physical custody if she continues down this path. It would be hard for George, though, to get sole legal custody, as courts lean on joint legal custody. Therefore, these parents are better off seeking help and working on their communication skills.

Example of Sole Legal Custody

When Carol married Brian, she had no idea that their marriage would last five years.

Unfortunately, Brian developed a substance abuse problem during their marriage that led to his abusiveness. Not only was he verbally abusive, but he was also physically abusive towards her and her three-year-old son. With hospital records and police reports to boot, Carol walked out of the marriage with sole legal custody of their child.

Brian is now in recovery and has supervised visitation rights to see his son. However, he cannot participate in decision-making processes until the court decides otherwise. It allows Carol to stay away from him and not be in a situation where she could be in danger. It also protects their child, who can only be with his father if a responsible adult is present.