The Difference Between Sole Legal Custody and Joint Legal Custody

Time to read up.

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Sole legal custody of a child means one parent has the right to make all decisions concerning their child’s upbringing. Joint legal custody means both parents have an equal, legal right when making decisions concerning their child’s upbringing. (These are the two types of legal custody, which the legal community is increasingly referring to as "decision-making.")

Sole Legal Custody

If you have sole legal custody of your child, you can make all decisions regarding issues such as schooling, religion, medical care, and housing. With sole legal custody, you do not have to take into consideration the wishes or opinions of the other parent regarding your child’s upbringing. 

What Is Sole Legal Custody?

Sole legal custody is a type of child custody that grants a parent the right to make important, long-term decisions regarding their child. This may include aspects of the child's upbringing, including education and medical care.

Example of Sole Legal Custody

Frank and Diana had been married for eight years and have two children under the age of six. Frank has a history of becoming physically abusive toward Diana, sometimes in front of the children. Diana was able to prove in court, via hospital records and police reports, that Frank is a violent husband. The judge awarded Diana sole legal custody with supervised visitation for Frank.

Frank was also ordered to participate in anger management classes before the judge would remove the order for supervised visitation. In a case like this, where there is a history of domestic abuse, it isn't unusual for the nonviolent parent to obtain sole legal custody.

In doing so, the court knows that the custodial parent would not be safe when having to communicate issues regarding the children with the abusive party. To keep the custodial parent safe and to ensure that his tendency to become violent doesn't affect the children, the courts do what is in the best interest of all involved. Frank does have options, however—to get his temper under control or risk becoming a virtual stranger to his children. 

Joint Legal Custody

In most courts, parents are awarded joint legal custody. In joint legal custody, both parents share decisions about the child’s upbringing. Both parents have to communicate with each other and come to a common decision on such issues as schooling, religion, medical care, and housing.

If you have joint legal custody and leave your ex out of the decision-making process, you could be found in contempt of court.

What Is Joint Legal Custody?

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

Example of Joint Legal Custody

Consider John and Jean, who have two children. They share joint legal custody and John has physical custody. The children live with John, but Jean has the same legal rights as John when making major decisions about the children.

John harbors a lot of anger toward Jean because she cheated and left him to raise the children when she chose another man over him. In John’s opinion, Jean gave up any right to say-so over the children’s lives when she abandoned the marriage and left her children.

John stubbornly refuses to communicate with Jean, and often makes decisions regarding the children without first getting input from Jean. Due to his behavior, John is opening the door for Jean to take him back to court for contempt. And, if she so desires, she may request a change in custody due to John’s refusal to grant her legal rights according to the courts.

If you feel you and your ex will be unable to communicate and co-parent your children, you should consider requesting sole legal custody. Be informed, though, that most states prefer awarding joint legal custody. In other words, when it comes to custody, it is best to put your anger away and treat your ex civilly for the sake of your children.

Article Sources
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  1. Hofstra University. "From the Rule of One to Shared Parenting: Custody Presumptions in Law and Policy." 2014.

  2. Cornell Law School. Joint Custody. Updated June 2020.

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