Child custody can be one of divorce’s most stressful and confusing elements. During the process of determining custody, you will come across many different terms. It’s critical that you understand them and how they impact your life and relationship with your children. Here, we are going to explore legal custody, what that means in Utah, and how courts make decisions about it.
Legal Custody versus Physical Custody
There are two types of custody–legal and physical–and each covers different rights and responsibilities.
Physical custody means that the parent will provide the primary residence for the child. Generally, this means the child will live most of the time with the parent who has physical custody.
Legal custody allows a parent to make important decisions about their child, including medical care, educational options, and religious choices. If your child needs medical care and the doctor offers several treatment plans, legal custody determines which parent can make that decision.
Legal custody also allows a parent to determine what religion a child will be raised in and which religious practices and rituals they will observe. This part of a custody agreement also covers educational decisions such as where and what type of school the child will attend. Even choices like allowing a minor child to marry, get a tattoo, or join the military all fall to the person or people with legal custody.
What Are Sole and Joint Legal Custody?
Legal custody can be sole, meaning it goes entirely to one parent, or joint, meaning both parents share decision-making authority and rights.
A parent with sole legal custody does not need to consult the co-parent when making decisions for their child. They may choose to allow the other parent to express thoughts and preferences, but it is not required. For example, if your child needs medical care and you have sole legal custody, you can make that decision without consulting the co-parent.
The parent with legal custody is also not legally required to notify the other parent about these decisions before or after the fact. However, if you have sole legal custody, it is often best to communicate with your co-parent about your choices for the sake of the co-parenting relationship.
Joint legal custody means both parents share the responsibility of making important decisions for their children. This joint responsibility requires communication and compromise from both people. If things get heated, or you feel your co-parent is not respecting your rights, consult your custody attorney. They can determine whether your ex is violating the custody agreement and help you understand your options.
How Does the Court Make Legal Custody Decisions?
In some cases, with the help of their divorce and custody lawyers, divorcing parents agree on custody. A judge does have to review the plan, but as long as it is reasonable, it will typically be approved. If the parents cannot agree on a plan, the court will decide on the custody arrangements.
In Utah, the court must make custody decisions based on children’s best interests. The gender of the parent can not be used to guide custody. In other words, legal custody will not default to a mother simply because she is the female parent. Here are some of the factors a judge will consider when deciding on legal custody over a child:
- Child’s Emotional and Physical Needs: Which parent is best situated to meet the child’s current and future needs?
- Parent’s Mental and Physical Health: If one parent has physical or mental health challenges that might affect their ability to care for the child, the court will factor that into its decision.
- The Child’s Existing Relationship with Each Parent: If one parent makes most decisions about the child’s care, that will be a relevant factor in a custody case. If the child has a strained relationship with one parent, that can also come into play.
- The Parents’ Willingness to Work Together: Some of the issues covered by legal custody can be challenging for couples in a healthy, stable marriage because they deal with sensitive topics like religion or healthcare. For divorced parents, these conversations can be even more difficult. If parents seem unwilling to work together or compromise for the child’s sake, that can affect the custody decision.
- Preferences of the Child: Children do not decide which parent gets physical or legal custody. That’s up to the judge. However, the court can consider any expressed preferences or the reasoning behind them. The older and more mature the child, the more weight a judge will likely give their preferences.
- Any Other Factors the Court Deems Relevant: The judge has a great deal of discretion when making a decision. If you think other elements in the lives of yourself, your child, or your co-parent are relevant to the decision about legal custody, work with your family law and divorce attorney in Salt Lake to ensure those circumstances are presented to the court.
In summary, legal custody gives you decision-making authority over your child. If you share legal custody with your co-parent, you both have a right to weigh in on decisions, and you will likely have to compromise to agree on how to proceed. If specific decisions are important to you, your divorce lawyer may be able to get those details added to the custody agreement. That means that those priorities are protected even in joint custody cases. The best time to do that is before the judge finalizes the custody terms. That makes it critical that you talk through the implications of legal custody with your attorney before the court makes a final custody decision.