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What Is Legal Custody?

Article by Aleksandra Kocelko, Esq.

Parents beginning the custody process are often unfamiliar with the terms and phrases used by lawyers in court. Most think of custody as a schedule to identify who will be taking care of the children but there is another facet to custody – legal custody.

In Pennsylvania, legal custody is identifying who will be responsible for making the important decisions for the children, like medical care, school choice, or religious decisions. Typically, this does not include small, day-to-day choices such as what the kids might eat for lunch, whether they play softball or soccer, or taking a quick trip to the urgent care for a sore throat. Instead, legal custody focuses on the large-scale choices involved in parenting. Generally, there are two types of legal custody, shared or sole.

Shared legal custody requires that both parents agree on major decisions for the children, examples might include surgery or long-term medical care, which school to enroll the child in if parents live in different districts, and what religion to raise the children. If parents are unable to agree on one of these issues, the court will decide. This may result in one parent being granted sole legal custody for a specific issue. Conversely, sole legal custody vests the right to make such decisions in one parent, and one parent alone. They are not obligated to consult with the other parent when making decisions. Depending on the custody schedule, they may have to notify the other parent, as it could impact their time.

It is not uncommon for parents to have shared legal custody, except for one issue. When choosing a child’s school becomes a point of contention, one parent might be granted school-choice, or sole legal custody for educational decisions. In general, sole legal custody is uncommon, as it takes away one parent’s right to be involved in decision-making for the child, but may be granted in a scenario where that parent has shown poor decision making, struggles with addiction or mental health issues, or where co-parenting is so inhibited that the parties simply cannot work together to make decisions.

It is critical that any final Custody Order address not only the custody schedule but also legal custody. The Order can then be submitted to schools, doctors’ offices, etc. so that everyone is on the same page as to who should be contacted and notified about information related to the children.