Legal Custody Overview

legal custody

Pennsylvania law recognizes two different types of custody in divorce cases: physical custody and legal custody. Physical custody involves issues surrounding where a minor child lives. Legal custody represents the ability of a parent, or both parents, to make major life decisions on the part of a minor child.

Understanding the Types of Legal Custody

Pennsylvania law recognizes two different types of legal custody in divorce cases. Joint legal custody is a scheme in which both parents share in making major life decisions for a minor child. In the alternative, sole legal custody is a situation in which only one parent is vested with the authority to make major life decisions for a child.

Determining which legal custody scheme is to be followed is dependent upon the specific facts and circumstances of a case. In an ideal world, both parents would share in making major life decisions for a child, even during and after a divorce.

Legal Custody Standard

In determining what type of legal custody order will issue in a particular case, a court considers what is in the best interests of the child. Again, in an ideal world, a child’s best interests arguably are served when both parents actively participate in the major life decision making process. In the final analysis, however, determining whether legal custody will be sole or joint requires a case-by-case evaluation.

Some factors that are considered in making a determination regarding sole or joint legal custody include the availability of the parent, the physical and mental health of the parent, the role a parent historically has played in the life of a child and the ability of a parent to effectively and reasonably communicate with the other parent.

Major Life Decisions

Major life decisions can include a number of matters. Religion, education and healthcare matters typically top the list when considering major life decisions through the legal custody lens. In addition to these fundamental issues, major life decisions can include a variety of other matters that must be fleshed out on a case-by-case basis.

Sharing legal custody does not mean that the noncustodial parent is called upon to participate in all aspects of decision making related to the child. Minor and incidental decisions typically are within the province of the parent with primary physical custody.