What is Legal Custody and Why is it Important?

It is doubtful that any two words mean as many different things to as many different people as the words ‘joint custody.
— In re Marriage of Birnbaum
Series: What is the Difference Between Legal Custody, Physical Custody, and Parenting Time? 

Series: What is the Difference Between Legal Custody, Physical Custody, and Parenting Time? 

What is legal custody and why is it important?

In my experience, most parents are not thinking of legal custody when they explain that they want custody of their children.  I suspect that most people assume that they will always have the authority to make decisions about where their children attend school, what kinds of medical treatment they receive, and where they live.  But you do not have the authority to make these decisions just because you are a parent to your children. 

Legal custody means that you have the authority and the responsibility to make important decisions about your children’s upbringing.  These decisions include:

  • Where the children live
  • Where the children go to school
  • What medications or medical care the children will receive
  • What extracurricular activates the children will participate in, including sports and tutoring
  • Which religion a child participates in

Legal custody doesn’t affect the amount of time a parent spends with their children, which often feels like the most important part of custody.  Legal custody, however, is an extremely important because without it, a parent cannot make critical, big-picture decisions for their children.

Sole vs. Joint Legal Custody

Sole legal custody means that you can make all of the above big-picture decisions for your child without the other parent’s consent.  While this may sound like winning the custody case, the court does not generally put itself into the position of choosing between two parents.  Instead, the court’s focus is always on what is in the best interests of your children.

A court may grant sole legal custody to one parent if:

  • The other parent has committed domestic violence.
  • There are safety concerns about the other parent, including substance abuse, child abuse, or child neglect.
  • There is risk of abduction of the child.
  • There is any other reason that makes the court believe that an order for sole legal custody would be in the best interests of the children.   

In contrast, having joint legal custody means that both parents share the right to make decisions for their children.  This overlap will require a certain level of cooperation between the parents.

Zones of Parenting Decisions

Sometimes parents (or the judge) know that they won’t ever be able to agree on certain issues.  For example, some parents may fear that one parent will act unilaterally and register a child for a certain school without previous agreement.  In situations like these, the parents can have a special kind of joint legal custody. 

The court can order that one parent has unilateral authority to make decisions without the other parent but only within certain “zones”. 

Alternatively, the court can order that the parents must agree on certain issues.  If one parent acts unilaterally, they could be subject to civil or criminal penalties. 

These zones can include:

  • Enrollment in or leaving a particular private or public school or daycare center
  • Participation in particular religious activities or institutions
  • Beginning or ending of psychiatric, psychological, or other mental health counseling or therapy
  • Selection of a doctor, dentist, or other health professional (except in emergency situations)
  • Participation in extracurricular activities
  • Out-of-country or out-of-state travel
  • Any other request


Legal custody is a very important aspect of custody that can be overlooked or misunderstood without the advice of an attorney.  At Krueger Family Law, we understand that no two families are the same.  We take a flexible approach to reach good solutions for our clients and their families.  

If you have questions, you can contact Krueger Family Law to schedule a consultation.