Sole Legal Custody of a Child

There are two types of child custody: 1) legal and 2) physical.  This article will focus on legal custody. 

Legal custody gives one or both parents the right to make major life decisions on behalf of the child such as:

  • Education;
  • Religion;
  • Medical Care; and
  • All other decisions affecting the child's general welfare and well-being.

If a court gives one parent decision making authority, that parent is said to have sole legal custody of the child.  If the court awards both parents decision making authority, they have joint legal custody of the child.

When Will Courts Award Sole Legal Custody?

Courts prefer that both parents play a role in a child's life and together make important decisions impacting the child. Therefore, sole legal custody is rarely awarded.  In making custody decisions, the court's primary concern is the child's best interests.  In determining what is in a child's best interests, courts will examine various factors including:

  • Whether there is a history of domestic violence;
  • Whether there is a history of child abuse;
  • Whether either parent has a past substance abuse problem;

Whether either parent currently has a substance abuse problem; 

  • Whether either parent is or has been deemed unfit or otherwise incapable of having any form of responsibility for a child; and
  • The stability and safety of each parent's home environment.

If one parent has a history of unavailability, it's likely that the other parent will be awarded sole legal custody.  In such instances, courts grant sole legal custody in an effort to facilitate the custodial parent's ability to make important decisions, especially in emergency situations.

The Pros of Sole Legal Custody

The biggest benefit of sole legal custody is that it allows the custodial parent to make decisions which impact the child without the consent of a non-custodial parent who has a history of unavailability.  Sole legal custody is also beneficial  in instances where the non-custodial parent is abusive, uncommunicative, or uncooperative.

The Cons of Sole Legal Custody

The biggest con of sole legal custody is that is tends to isolate the non-custodial parent from the child in that he or she has no say in very important aspects of how the child is raised and cared for.  Moreover, if the court order does not specify which decisions are “major” or if the parents disagree about whether a particular decision is “major”, it may be impossible to make critical decisions in emergency situations. 

Because courts are primarily concerned with the bests interests of the child, what a parent wants is generally not relevant.  Therefore, if you believe that your child's other parent is unfit and, as a result, you should be awarded sole legal custody, you should hire an experienced child custody attorney.  Your attorney will review your case, recommend the best course of action, and, if necessary, gather the evidence necessary to prove that the other parent is unfit.

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