After separation, a court will make an initial determination on child custody. Courts will generally grant physical custody to one parent, often with visitation to the other parent, and legal custody to one or both parents. It is often the case that a court will give both parents joint legal custody.
Courts differ on the exact definition of joint legal custody. Generally, joint legal custody is defined as a parent's shared right to determine how to raise a child, with specific consideration to day-to-day activities. Parents are expected to make decisions together, without the interference of a court.
Joint Legal Custody Decisions
Often parents must make bilateral decisions on issues such as:
- Choice of schools (Note: If an educational decision involves religion, a court will not intervene, as religious choice is a First Amendment Right.)
- Choice of doctors and medical decisions, such as whether to permit certain medical procedures
- Choice of after-school activities
Pros and Cons of Joint Legal Custody
The Benefits of Joint Legal Custody Include:
- An easier adjustment for children, as joint custody allows both parents to be involved in a meaningful way
- Joint legal custody includes both parents, which is especially beneficial those who wish to parent collaboratively because it encourages parents to work together
The Difficulties Associated with Joint Legal Custody Include:
- Parents must be able to effectively communicate and handle joint decisions involving a child
- Parents often have different ideas about raising children, which might influence their day-to-day decisions
Alternatives for Situations Where Parents Who Share Joint Legal Custody Disagree
If parents cannot reach a mutual decision involving the day-to-day rearing of a child, a court will consider a few alternatives:
- Deferring to a neutral third-party, agreed upon by both parties, which might be a stipulation in the custody agreement
- Court-ordered mediation
- If both alternatives fail, a court, in its discretion, may choose to intervene.
In addition, matters surrounding child custody may be modified at the court’s discretion. However, courts do not want to be involved with the day-to-day decisions of raising children. Prior to involving a court of law in decisions involving joint legal custody, parents should first consider the best interest of the child. Then if necessary, invite a neutral third-party to assist in reaching a decision.