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Understand What Legal Custody Means

FAQs About Legal Custody


Small boy kissing his mother
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Legal custody refers to the right to make major decisions on behalf of your child. These include decisions about medical care, religion, and education. However, many parents who share legal custody have questions about how the courts expect this type of child custody to play out in real life. Common questions include:

I was relieved when the judge said that we'd be sharing legal custody, but I'm confused because my kids still live with my ex. I thought sharing custody would mean that the kids would live with me part of the time.

Legal custody refers only to decision-making power. Being awarded joint legal custody means that both of you have the power to make legal decisions, rather than only one of you having the ability to execute decisions about big-ticket items like medical care, religion, and education. But it's important to know that physical custody is another matter. It's common for custodial parents and non-custodial parents to share legal custody.

Are parents who share joint legal custody supposed to agree about everything?

The courts expect parents who share joint legal custody to collaborate on major decisions. That doesn't mean that you're always going to agree. Remember, too, that you'd be making compromises about major parenting decisions even if you were raising your kids together as a couple. So don't make the mistake of thinking that just because you don't completely agree about everything that your legal custody arrangement needs to be changed. It's more likely that your approach to collaborating with your ex is what needs to be tweaked.

What can I do if I disagree about a decision my ex made regarding my child's medical care?

Technically, you can use the disagreement to take your ex back to court and request that legal custody be awarded solely to you. However, this can backfire, because the courts can decide to award sole legal custody to your ex instead. It's usually safer to try to and work things out among yourselves. To do this, initiate a judgment-free conversation with your ex about the decision. When you genuinely seek information and ask questions, you open the door to actually talking about it, which can then lead to greater understanding and even the potential to compromise with one another.

What if we disagree about where our kids should go to school?

Ask your ex to make a list of the pros and cons of his preference, and do the same with yours. Then, come together in a neutral location and share your lists. Each of you may be surprised by what the other has to say. Ultimately, it's in your children's best interests to resolve the issue between the two of you, rather than returning to court over it.

I agreed to raise my kids according to my ex's religion, but now I've changed my mind. What can I do?

Parents who share legal custody need to work together to make decisions about their children's religious upbringing. Technically, this is another issue that you can bring to the courts, but do you really want them to make the decision for you? If possible, talk with your ex and reach a compromise you can both agree to. This may mean that your child is exposed to two religions for a period of time. However, if you feel very strongly about your religious views, this may be preferable to having your kids brought up in your ex's religion only.

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