Understanding Joint Legal Custody

Young boy listening to his parents fighting

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Joint legal custody means that both parents have the legal authority to make major decisions for the child. These include decisions regarding education, religion, and health care. Parents should be aware, too, that legal custody is separate from physical custody. In other words, it is possible for co-parents to share legal custody but not share physical custody.

Child's Best Interest

Barring domestic violence in the family, a special-needs child, relevant and special circumstances, or long distances between the parents' addresses, joint legal custody is presumed to be in the best interest of the child. Suitable evidence must be brought before the court for joint legal custody to be denied.

There are general factors leading to determining the best interests of a child, including but not limited to:

  • The moral standard, conduct, and actions of the parents
  • How the parents have acted on the child's best interests in the past
  • Which parent is more likely to allow the child more frequent contact with the other parent
  • The quality of the relationship between a parent and child

Types of Court Ordered Custody

Parents should not interpret a ruling of joint legal custody as an indication that the court is likely to also grant joint physical custody.

It is quite common for parents to share legal custody even while the child resides primarily with one parent and has regular visitation with the other.

There are many types of custody and visitation granted by courts. They generally fall into two buckets including joint physical and sole physical:

Joint Legal and Joint Physical

In this type of arrangement, the child has two residences and spends equal time living with each parent. Joint physical custody usually works best when both parents live within the same city or region.

Both parents make important decisions about the child and work together to decide on major issues, such as upbringing, religion, medical procedures and treatments, schooling, and more. Communication must be a priority between the parents for this type of arrangement to work. There also is some evidence that children in this arrangement fair better than those that are in sole-custody situation.

Joint Legal and Sole Physical

In this type of arrangement, the child would spend more time living with one parent. However, both parents make important decisions about their child's life.

The parents must work together to make decisions on the upbringing of the child, even if the child has only one primary residence. It's important to note that one parent may have the authority to be the "tiebreaker" in cases of disagreement, or each parent may be given decision-making authority in certain areas or situations.

Pros and Cons of Joint Custody

Joint custody has its benefits and drawbacks for both the child and the parents. Parents considering their custody options should consider the following:


Parents who share joint legal custody must continue to communicate with one another in order to reach joint decisions. Even when one or both parents are reluctant at first, the outcome can be very beneficial for the child.

Children typically benefit from seeing their parents interact genuinely with one another, ideally demonstrating what it means to compromise and work through disagreements in a healthy manner. With time and as parents learn to co-parent collaboratively, a certain degree of effectiveness can be reached when it comes to rules, consequences, meals, bedtimes, and many other child-rearing choices.

Parenting is a dynamic process. There will likely be ups and downs ahead. Every family goes through this, and when it happens, the input of your co-parent may not only be positive but welcome. This is especially true for major decisions around education and medical care.

The Cons 

It is often difficult to collaborate on important decisions. There's really no roadmap for what it should look like or what success means, and there are times when it is impractical to consult with one another before reaching a decision.

Many parents complain that the system can, at times, be manipulated. For example, when one parent argues that the other "must" do what they say because they share joint legal custody. 

Forcing two parents to collaborate does not guarantee that they will be agreeable or demonstrate healthy co-parenting communication skills. In fact, 20% of parents report experiencing continued conflict including high levels of tension, an inability to resolve problems, blaming, and sometimes even verbal or physical attacks.

When It Works Best

Joint legal custody is most ideal for parents who have already demonstrated a willingness to work with one another in making key decisions for their child. It's also best when neither parent is holding a grudge against the other or refusing to communicate—which happens, unfortunately.

Conversely, courts are sometimes careful not to assign joint legal custody in situations where one parent is unreliable or has a history of 'checking out' and being out of touch for long periods of time.

Communication skills are essential to making this type of child custody arrangement work, and it can go south quickly if both parents are not on board.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Bergström M, Fransson E, Modin B, Berlin M, Gustafsson PA, Hjern A. Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children? J Epidemiol Community Health. 2015;69(8):769-74. doi:10.1136/jech-2014-205058

  3. Clark B. Supporting the mental health of children and youth of separating parents. Paediatr Child Health. 2013;18(7):373-7. PMID:24421713

  4. Sigal A, Sandler I, Wolchik S, Braver S. Do parent education programs promote healthy post-divorce parenting? Critical distinctions and a review of the evidence. Fam Court Rev. 2011;49(1):120-139. doi:10.1111/j.1744-1617.2010.01357.x

By Jennifer Wolf
Jennifer Wolf is a PCI Certified Parent Coach and a strong advocate for single moms and dads.