Joint Legal Custody Agreement

By Victoria McGrath

During a divorce, couples with minor children must resolve child custody issues, including legal custody and physical custody of each child. Parents who agree to share joint legal custody of a child often outline their shared responsibilities in a joint legal custody agreement. Although a joint legal custody agreement refers specifically to legal custody, it is possible to address both legal and physical custody in a single document. If you want to address both issues, you can still title the agreement "joint legal custody agreement" or change it to a “joint child custody agreement.”

Mutual Responsibility and Decision-Making

Shared legal custody means that both parents are mutually responsible for their child’s health and welfare, and entitled to make major decisions regarding the child’s education, religious instruction, medical care, moral standards and emotional needs. If parents agree to enter into a joint legal custody agreement, the court will approve it only if the terms are in the best interests of the child. If not, the court has discretion to award sole legal custody in which only one parent makes the major decisions regarding a child’s health and welfare. Once the court approves the joint legal custody agreement and grants child custody according to its terms, it will specify consequences for violation of the agreement.

Legal Child Custody Issues

Parents who exercise joint legal custody by agreement and court order share legal responsibilities over the child. They have an obligation to communicate with each other regarding any legal custody matters. Legal custody issues include: out-of-state or out-of-country travel with the child; school enrollment or withdrawal from a public or private institution; type of child care provider; involvement in extracurricular activities and after-school programs; and participation in religious studies or activities. Both parents decide on any required mental health, psychological or psychiatric services and routine and emergency medical care. Both are entitled to select the doctor and dentist for the child and access the child’s medical and school records, as well.

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Sample Joint Legal Custody Agreement

A sample joint legal custody agreement starts with an acknowledgement that both parents agree to participate in joint legal custody. It outlines parental rights and responsibilities, including open communication and fair access to each child. The legally binding document includes the name of each parent and of each minor child under legal custody of the parents. A comprehensive legal custody agreement includes individual sections on each child's residence, child care arrangements, basic education, higher education, religious studies, extra-curricular activities, mental health and medical services and access to medical records. The custody agreement addresses financial issues as well, including which parent pays child care expenses, college costs and child support, and in what amounts. If the agreement pertains to both legal custody and physical custody, it also covers supervision, residency and transportation schedules.

Joint Legal Custody and Joint Physical Custody

Before you draft a joint legal custody agreement, you must determine if you will address the issue of shared physical custody or sole physical custody in this agreement. If you and your spouse agree on joint legal custody and joint physical custody, it is appropriate to address both types of custody in the same parenting agreement. In a child custody case, the court authorizes both legal custody and physical custody of a child. It awards shared physical custody or sole physical custody at its discretion, the same as it awards shared legal custody or sole legal custody. Shared or joint physical custody means both parents provide their child with physical supervision, housing, clothing and entertainment on set daily schedules. Sole physical custody allows only one parent to provide supervision and housing to the child on a daily basis, and generally permits the other parent unsupervised or supervised visitation, unless the court determines that visitation is not in the best interest of the child.

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