What Is Joint Legal Custody?

What Is Joint Legal Custody?

Zach and Mary decide to divorce after 14 years of marriage. Of course, they are concerned about how their three children will handle the stress of divorce. Both parents want custody, but realize they need a plan. As they learn more about how custody is decided, they have questions. For example, they aren’t sure what joint legal custody entails.

Types of Child Custody

In a divorce proceeding, the term “child custody” refers to the care, control, and maintenance of a child or children. However, there are two different types of custody:  physical and legal. Each type of custody can be sole or joint. Sometimes a judge may even award one parent sole physical custody of a child, but joint legal custody. As always, the judge will decide what’s best for the child when finalizing child custody arrangements:

  • Sole Custody. A parent with sole physical custody decides where a child lives. If a parent is awarded sole legal custody, he or she will make all legal decisions related to a child’s health, education, and welfare. The non-custodial parent may have visitation rights as ordered by the court.
  • Joint Custody. Parents may share legal or physical custody under joint custody arrangements. Physical custody still relates to arrangements regarding the physical presence of the child. Legal custody still refers to the child’s health, education, and welfare. The difference, of course, is that each parent has at least some say in what happens with the child.

So, how does joint legal custody vary from sole legal custody and joint/sole physical custody?

Joint Legal Custody

Parents who are given joint legal custody generally are required to make decisions together. However, if a parent refuses to work with the other parent, they may both end up back in court. That’s not the ideal situation for anyone.

Sometimes Sharing is Impossible.

A judge may give one parent sole legal custody if:

  • parents are unable to work together
  • one person is considered an unfit parent
  • one of the parents is just not capable of making legal decisions
  • it appears that it’s not in the children’s best interests for both parents to share legal custody

Final Thoughts.

Zach and Mary found it difficult to agree on a parenting plan. Both wanted maximum time with their kids. Both wanted to make all decisions. The judge presiding over their case sent to them mediation, where they came up a parenting plan that worked for the children. They were able to see that joint custody could work as long as they continued to communicate and put their children first.

Acting in the best interest of the child is the driving principle behind a parent plan. Make sure custody issues are handled while negotiating your marital settlement agreement.

To discuss your child custody concerns with an experienced California attorney, please call us at 415-293-8314. The attorneys at the Law Offices of Judy L. Burger assist clients in San Francisco, Marin County, Santa Barbara, Ventura/Oxnard, San Jose, Gold River (Sacramento), Roseville, and surrounding communities.

Types of California Custody Orders

Types of California Custody Orders

In California, as in most states, custody, visitation, and child support issues are intertwined. This blog will discuss the basics of custody law in California. You may read more about child support at our blog here, and visitation will be explained in more detail in a later blog.


California law recognizes two types of custody: physical and legal. Courts make decisions about these issues based on the best interests of the child. Custody is not granted based on the parents’ ages, lifestyles, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation. Also, in California, there is no presumption that custody of young child should be awarded to the mother. Indeed, by law, the sex of the parents may not be considered in making custody decisions. See Cal. Fam. Code § 3040(a)(1). California courts presume that the child’s best interest is supported by joint custody arrangements. See Cal. Fam. Code § 3080.


When most people hear the term “custody,” they usually think of where a child lives. This is called “physical custody.” Physical custody may be held jointly—by both parents—or by one parent, known as “sole” physical custody.


With joint custody, each parent has a “significant period of physical custody.” While a child’s time cannot usually be split in exact halves, the child in a joint custody arrangement has “frequent and continuing contact with both parents.” Cal. Fam. Code § 3004.


On the other hand, when one parent receives sole physical custody of a child, the child lives with and is under the supervision of that parent, and the other parent is given visitation rights.


The second type of custody is called “legal custody.” This term refers to the right and responsibility of parents to make important decisions for their children. Legal custody may be awarded jointly to both parents or to only one parent. 


If the parents have joint legal custody, usually both parents must agree on issues related to the health, education, and welfare of the child. This includes decisions about important aspects of the child’s life, such as the following:

  • Religious decisions, such as whether and where a child will go to church;
  • Medical and dental decisions, such as whether to get braces or undergo psychotherapy; and
  • What school the child(ren) will attend.


When legal custody is given to one parent, it is called “sole legal custody.” If a parent has sole legal custody, that parent has the exclusive right and responsibility to make these decisions for the child.


Often, parents can come to a mutually agreeable decision about child custody. When this occurs, it is certainly better for the child. However, if the parents cannot agree, a judge will make these decisions for them and memorialize them in an order that either parent can later enforce.


Custody issues can be among the most contested between parents. As you might imagine, how these matters are presented to a court can make a significant difference in the support order. You want an attorney with substantial experience in Northern California who will represent you aggressively. Please contact The Law Offices of Judy L. Burger at (415) 259-6636 to learn more.