What Is Sole Legal Custody?

Understand the Pros & Cons of Sole Legal Custody

Mother with sole legal custody speaking to her daughter
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It is often assumed that parents fighting for child custody are only arguing about physical custody. However, there's another type of child custody that parents need to consider, and that's legal custody. A parent who has sole legal custody is the only person who has the legal authority to make major decisions on behalf of his or her child. These types of decisions include education, religion, and health care.

It's important to remember that legal custody is different from physical custody. In other words, it is possible—and quite common—for co-parents to share legal custody but not share physical custody.

Pros of Sole Legal Custody

  • It is often easier to make major decisions when there is only one parent legally responsible for each choice.
  • This may, in some cases, result in greater consistency for the child.
  • For families where one parent is completely absent, it is absolutely necessary for the remaining parent to be able to make critical decisions without having to consult with a parent who has made himself/herself unavailable.

Cons of Sole Legal Custody

  • It can be difficult to consult with the other parent before making a major decision, especially when it comes to a child's routine or emergency medical care.
  • When disagreements arise over various decisions, it is often unclear which parent should be the one to defer or compromise on his or her convictions.
  • It can sometimes be unclear which parenting decisions are deemed "major" decisions. For instance, does the decision to seek counseling for a child require both parent to agree up front on the course of treatment?

Advice for Parents Seeking Sole Legal Custody

Parents seeking sole legal custody may wish to avoid the inconveniences and confusion that can come with this arrangement.

However, before you decide to pursue sole legal custody in court, consider the following factors:

  • Whether both parents are accessible for joint decision making; if you're both generally available, it may not be necessary for one parent to have sole legal custody.
  • Whether it is practical for both parents to participate in decision making (for example, sharing joint custody in different time zones can be challenging logistically)
  • Whether sharing legal custody is a compromise that benefits the children and/or your case for sole physical custody (if that is your intent)
  • Whether there are any risks for your children in sharing joint legal custody (for example, if your ex has demonstrated high-risk behaviors in the past that may impair decision making)
  • Whether either parent is seeking sole legal custody simply to avoid the hassle of having to consult with the other parent

When Sole Legal Custody Works Best and When It Does Not

In general, sole legal custody is ideal in situations where one parent is not available for consultation on key decisions involving the child's health, education, and religious upbringing. It is not considered the best choice when one parent is seeking sole legal custody simply to avoid having to consult with the other.

Typically, when a parent is motivated by the desire to avoid conflict or communication with the other parent, but both parents are available and equally fit, the courts will reject the request for sole legal custody and require the parents to learn how to work together for the sake of the children.