Ignore the Implications of Joint Legal Custody at Your Own Risk

As Philadelphia family lawyers we encounter a great deal of confusion about custody. Clients often come to us speaking of custody as if it means just one thing: who the child will live with, and who the child will be visiting.

In reality, there are quite a few different custody arrangements. It’s complex. There are two basic forms: physical and legal. Parents may share joint physical custody and joint legal custody. Sometimes, one parent is awarded both sole physical and sole legal custody, but that isn’t always the case.

What we see most often is a scenario where one parent is awarded sole physical custody of a child even as both parents are awarded joint legal custody. And this is where the parent with physical custody can get into trouble, as these parents are often tempted to act as though they have both.

Physical custody only determines who the child will live with.

By contrast, legal custody determines who has the right to make major medical, educational, and religious decisions. This may also cover other major decisions, as the definition of legal custody in Pennsylvania is not limited to these three key areas.

Want to home school your child? If your ex has joint legal custody you’ll need his or her consent, first. Want to raise your child as a Catholic like your side of the family? Your Protestant ex with joint legal custody gets to weigh in on that.

In practice, parents without physical custody sometimes “check out” and fail to enforce their rights, either because they don’t know they have them or because it simply becomes too big of a hassle, further feeding the misconception that physical custody grants the custodial parent the right and ability to make all major decisions for the child.

But sometimes an ex will feel a particular issue is worth fighting over, and the ex can certainly demand a court hearing in cases where two parents with joint legal custody cannot agree on a course of action.

Legal custody and vaccination: a case from another state.

One example of a major medical decision which would be covered by legal custody would be the decision to vaccinate a child. Pennsylvania offers a “philosophical grounds” exemption to parents who are unwilling to seek vaccinations for their children thanks to the widespread “anti-vax” movement, thus leading to a scenario where two exes, one pro-vaccination and one opposed, could potentially disagree over the child’s shots.

Michigan has similar laws, and an October 2017 case that made the news demonstrates both how poorly joint legal custody is understood nationwide and the sorts of consequences parents can expect when they defy court orders meant to decide disputes between two parents with joint legal custody. A Mom agreed to vaccinate her son, then failed to do so. She was jailed for contempt of court and the father was awarded temporary physical custody until she could get out of jail and until the boy could be vaccinated.

The judge made the point that the child had two parents. 

And that’s what it really boils down to. If you don’t have sole legal custody, the other parent still has the right to be a parent.

Family law cases aren’t always over when the divorce decree is signed. 

This issue highlights one other mistake we see our clients making. They often assume they’re done with family court as soon as the divorce decree is signed. In reality, if child rearing, child support, or spousal support form any part of your divorce, then you may well find yourself facing a judge again at some point in the future.

If you do, make sure to stay in touch with your dedicated family law team here at Sadek and Cooper. We’ll help you protect your rights, and we’ll give you advice to help you stay out of trouble. Nobody loves going to court, but if you go, you should do so knowing you’ve got a fierce and experienced team of advocates on your side.


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