As you might already know, there are two types of custody in Utah: physical custody and legal custody. You can read about physical custody here. Legal custody deals with parental decision making, or the ability to have a say in what happens with your children in major areas of importance. Courts generally consider almost all major decisions to fall within these 3 categories: education, healthcare, and religious upbringing. However, there can be other major categories that should be considered depending on your children’s circumstances, like extracurricular activities or special needs.
What kinds of legal custody are there?
In Utah, there are basically two types of legal custody: sole legal custody and joint legal custody. Sometimes courts find a middle ground between these two types of legal custody by awarding “final decision making authority” to a certain parent. You can read more about that here.
Sole Legal Custody
If a parent is awarded sole legal custody then they get to make all of the major decisions that impact a child. They do not need to consult with the other parent before deciding where their child goes to school, what kind of school they go to, what kind of surgery they get, whether they should take medication, where they go to church, what religion they affiliate with, which counselor they should see, etc. This provides a parent with a lot of freedom and power and can also help one parent avoid conflict with the other parent. If every time you talk with the other parent the conversation tends to devolve into an argument, then having sole legal custody can help avoid these fights and the attending stress.
Joint Legal Custody
Under Utah law, “joint legal custody” is defined as “the sharing of the rights, privileges, duties, and powers” in raising a child. In actual practice, what this means is that whenever a major decision must be made for a child both parents must discuss it and come to an agreement on exactly what action to take. Here are a few examples of where this might come into play:
- A 5 year old child will be starting elementary school in the upcoming school year. The parents are considering public school or private school. Additionally, within the public school there are two options: a language immersion program and a normal track. Does the child go to public school or private school? And if the child goes to public school, is the child enrolled in the language immersion program or is the child placed on the normal track?
- The 9 year old child’s teacher tells the parents that they may consider some testing because the teacher feels the child may be on the autism spectrum. Should the child undergo such testing? If the child tests on the autism spectrum, what action should be taken? Should the child take medication? What medication should the child take? Should the child’s school curriculum be adjusted?
- The 12 year old child has just been in a car accident and the doctors recommend one of two courses of action. Each course of action has different side effects and potential long-term consequences. What action should be taken?
- The 16 year old child has been through a traumatic event and has been undergoing counseling for 6 months. The child says they no longer want to go to counseling, but if they must go they want to switch counselors. The parents talk to Counselor about this and Counselor tells them they believe the child should still undergo counseling and that the desire to switch counselors happens sometimes at this point in the process when the child is being asked to confront their issues and make real progress. Counselor tells the parents that this kind of growth can be difficult and switching counselors can allow teens to take the easy way out and delay the process. Should the child still attend counseling? Should the child switch counselors?
Legal custody can set the stage for a parent’s involvement in their child’s life for the foreseeable future. It is extremely rare for a parent to be awarded joint physical custody but not joint legal custody, so if a parent wants to spend more time with their child they must ensure that they are awarded joint legal custody. You can learn more about action steps to take in order to be awarded joint legal custody here.