What is Legal Custody of a child?

Simply stated, legal custody is the right to make important decisions regarding your children. Important decisions are usually defined to include decisions about education, religion, and health. If one parent has legal child custody, to the exclusion of the other, then it is referred to as “sole legal child custody”. Alternatively, if the parents share legal custody – make decisions together – then it is referred to as “joint legal chld custody”.

In theory, decisions made regarding the child should be decisions that are in the child’s “best interest”. That’s fine, when parents agree what is in the child’s “best interest”. Very often the reason parents divorce is because they cannot agree on important matters involving their children.


The general consensus among mental health professionals and judges is that it is in the children’s best interest when their parents share legal child custody. Joint legal custody allows children to grow up with the influence of each of their parents on their lives. Further, when an issue is discussed and decided by two people with the same vested interested, the result is a better reasoned decision. Discussions among parents, and decisions by both parents, sends a message to the children that Mom and Dad have equal control and involvement in their lives. Undoubtedly this message is reassuring to children whose parents are divorced.

In this regard, joint legal child custody can reduce the stress in a divorced family. The stress and responsibility of decision making is shared. The children can not blame one parent for the decision. It is also easier to say to your child “that is what we decided because we think it is in your best interest” rather than “because I think it is in your best interest” or “go ask your mother it wasn’t my decision”.

Joint legal custody is the optimal arrangement, but is only appropriate if the parents are able to get along. Sharing legal custody can be difficult in situations where one parent is frequently out of contact. It also may not be appropriate in situations where the parents are angry, disrespectful, or unwilling to work together. If there was domestic violence, chances are that joint legal custody is not appropriate.


The alternative to joint legal custody is “sole legal custody”. Sole legal custody is when one parent has the right and responsibility of making all of the important decisions regarding the children. Sole legal custody is often used when parents are unable to reach agreements regarding their children. Sole legal custody is awarded to one parent to prevent the conflict that results when parents are unable to reach agreements. When parents cannot reach agreement s regarding their it is extremely stressful and destructive for everyone involved. In these cases the children are the victims of their parents.


Physical custody refers to where the children live. If the children live with one parent more than 65% of the time, that is referred to as “primary physical custody” If the children live with each parent more than 35% of the time, then that is referred to as “”shared physical custody”.

The type of legal custody that is best for your child centers on the fitness of each spouse as a parent and the ability to get along and make decisions. When deciding between joint and sole legal custody, you should consider the realities of your individual circumstances and what is best for your child’s future.

Physical child custody has a direct impact on each parent’s child support obligation.

I have been practicing family law in Montgomery County, Maryland for Over [sum_y] years. If you are considering separation and divorce, and child custody is going to be an issue, I can help you. It is important that you understand the alternatives available to you and for you to consider what is in the best interest of your child.