Joint Legal Custody Definition

Understand the Meaning of Joint Legal Custody

Young boy listening to his parents fighting
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Are you frustrated with trying to understand the legal jargon used in your child custody case? For example, do you need a clear joint legal custody definition so you can understand how it differs from joint physical custody? You're not alone, and it really can be confusing. Here's what you need to know about the meaning of joint legal custody, along with the pros and cons of this particular type of child custody:

Joint Legal Custody Definition

Joint legal custody means that both parents have the legal authority to make major decisions for the child. These include decisions regarding education, religion, and health care.

Parents should be aware, too, that legal custody is separate from physical custody. In other words, it is possible for co-parents to share legal custody but not share physical custody. Therefore, parents should not interpret a ruling of joint legal custody as an indication that the court is likely to also grant joint physical custody. It is quite common for parents to share legal custody even while the children reside primarily with one parent and have regular visitation with the other.

Pros of Joint Legal Custody

Parents considering their custody options should consider the following 'pros' of joint legal custody:

  • Parents who share joint legal custody must continue to communicate with one another in order to reach joint decisions. Even when one or both parents are reluctant at first, the outcome can be very beneficial for the child.
  • With time, a certain degree of effectiveness can be reached between the parents as they learn to co-parent collaboratively.
  • Children typically benefit from seeing their parents interact genuinely with one another, ideally demonstrating what it means to compromise and work through disagreements in a healthy manner.
  • Parenting is a dynamic process. There will likely be ups and down ahead (think: teenage years.) Every family goes through this, and when it happens, the input of your co-parent may not only be positive, but also welcome. This is especially true to major decisions around education and medical care.

Cons of Joint Legal Custody

  • It is often difficult to collaborate on important decisions. There's really no 'roadmap' for what it should look like or what success means.
  • There are times when it is impractical to consult with one another before reaching a decision.
  • Many parents complain that the system can, at times, be manipulated. For example, when one parent argues that the other 'must' do that they want because they share joint legal custody.  
  • Forcing two parents to collaborate does not guarantee that they will be agreeable or demonstrate healthy co-parenting communication skills.

When Joint Legal Custody Works Best—and When It Does Not

Joint legal custody is most ideal for parents who have already demonstrated a willingness to work with one another in making key decisions for their child.

In my experience, it's also best when neither parent is holding a grudge against the other or refusing to communicate--which happens, unfortunately.

On the flip side, courts should be careful not to assign joint legal custody in situations where one parent is unreliable or has a history of 'checking out' and being out of touch for long periods of time. Communication skills are essential to making this type of child custody arrangement work, and it can go south quickly if both parents are not on board.