What Does Legal Custody Mean?

June 4, 2024by Adam Sacks

Many parents may not fully understand what legal custody entails or how it differs from physical custody. Whether seeking guidance through a divorce or exploring parental rights, gaining knowledge of legal custody can be beneficial in navigating family law.

In 2018, nearly 22 million American children had a parent who lived outside their household, and these children represented more than one-fourth of all children under 21 years of age. [1]


What is Legal Custody?

Legal custody refers to the authority and responsibility of parents or legal guardians to make important decisions on behalf of their child. They can include matters related to the child’s education, healthcare, religion, and general well-being. Legal custody can be granted to one parent (sole custody) or both parents (joint custody), depending on the court’s determination of what is in the best interests of the child. [2]


What is Legal Custody?


Joint Legal Custody

Joint legal custody means that both parents share decision-making power and authority. This arrangement acknowledges both parents’ involvement in raising the child and aims to provide an environment where the child can benefit from the joint efforts and perspectives of their parents.

Under joint legal custody, parents must collaborate and communicate to arrive at decisions that are in the best interests of the child. This type of custody arrangement requires mutual respect, cooperation, and a genuine commitment to prioritize the needs of the child above personal differences.


Sole Legal Custody

Sole legal custody grants one parent the exclusive authority to make major decisions concerning the child’s education, healthcare, religion, and overall well-being. The parent with sole legal custody has the final say in determining where the child will attend school, what medical treatments they will receive, and which religious practices they will follow.

To be granted sole legal custody, the court must consider the best interests of the child above all else. Factors such as the ability of each parent to provide a stable and nurturing environment, their willingness to prioritize the child’s needs, and any history of abuse or neglect will influence the court’s decision.

The non-custodial parent may still have visitation rights or parenting time, allowing them to spend time with the child. They have no say in the major decisions affecting the child’s life.


Sole Legal Custody


Why Do Judges Award Sole Legal Custody?

If one parent is deemed unfit or incapable of making responsible decisions regarding the child’s welfare, it may lead to sole legal custody. This may include neglect, abuse, substance abuse problems, mental illness, or anything else that may threaten the child’s safety or well-being.

In situations where one parent has actively undermined the other parent’s relationship with the child or consistently hindered cooperation on important issues, judges may award sole legal custody.

Any behavior that demonstrates a lack of willingness to work together for the child’s sake can be detrimental to their emotional and psychological development.

Sole legal custody might be granted if one parent is absent from the child’s life or is unable or unwilling to fulfill their parental responsibilities. This can include situations where a parent has abandoned the child without contact or support.


Legal Custody and Physical Custody; What is the Difference?

Legal custody refers to the rights and responsibilities of a parent to make decisions about their child’s upbringing. This may include education, healthcare, religion, and general welfare. When a parent has legal custody of a child, they have the authority to make these significant choices on behalf of their child.

Physical custody relates to where the child will primarily reside and spend their time. It determines which parent the child will live with and who will have the day-to-day care of the child. The parent with physical custody has the responsibility to provide for the child’s everyday needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter.

Legal and physical custody are determined by the court based on different factors, such as the child’s best interests, the parents’ ability to provide for the child, their relationship with the child, and any specific circumstances that may affect the child’s well-being.


Legal Custody and Physical Custody; What is the Difference?


Contact Sacks & Sacks today to schedule a consultation and get the answers you need about legal custody.



[1] Facts About Custodial and Non-Custodial Fathers in the U.S. (n.d.). Institute for Family Studies. https://ifstudies.org/blog/facts-about-custodial-and-non-custodial-fathers-in-the-us

[2] Joint Legal Custody Defined – Advantages & Disadvantages. (n.d.). https://www.custodyxchange.com/topics/custody/types/joint-legal-custody.php

by Adam Sacks

Adam Sacks is lead Family Law Attorney at Law Offices of Sacks & Sacks, P.A. in Jacksonville, Florida. He has a BA in Psychology from 1994, and received his Juris Doctor Degree in 1999 from the Western Michigan University Cooley Law School.

Sacks and Sacks Law
1646 Emerson St. Suite B Jacksonville, FL 32207

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