There are two types of child custody in California, legal and physical. If one parent has been awarded sole physical custody, but the two parents are awarded joint legal custody, the parent without physical custody may feel like they have no voice in the child’s upbringing choices and important life decisions. However, that’s far from being the case. Read on to learn what rights are available under joint legal custody and why they’re important.

What Is the Difference Between Legal Custody and Physical Custody?

Physical custody is just what it sounds like: It determines where the child will live. There can be joint physical custody, in which each parent gets a certain amount of time to live with the child. The alternative is sole physical custody, where the child lives with one parent full-time.

Legal custody involves important parenting decisions, defined legally as decisions related to the child’s health, education, and welfare. That includes decisions around where and how the child should be educated, where the child will live, travel plans, extracurricular activities and hobbies, religious beliefs and education, and medical care and treatment. The latter includes both routine medical decisions, such as which doctor the child will see and what preventive care they’ll receive, as well as emergencies involving illness or injury.

In California, most legal custody cases are decreed as joint legal custody. Usually, the only time one parent would be awarded sole legal custody is if the other parent is in jail or prison, has been determined to be mentally unwell or unfit, has been found guilty of domestic abuse, or some other factor that causes the judge to decide against joint legal custody.

Why Is Joint Legal Custody Important if I Don’t Have Joint Physical Custody?

Joint legal custody is important because you have the right to be involved in critical decision-making regarding various crucial aspects of your child’s life and upbringing. Without joint legal custody, your ex has the full authority to decide everything without your input. Suppose your ex decides they want to do something you disagree with, such as withholding routine childhood vaccinations or enrolling the child in a private religious school that’s counter to your beliefs. In that case, it’s difficult legally to counter those actions.

If you have joint legal custody, however, you’re legally in a position to challenge those decisions. If you and your ex can’t make a mutually acceptable decision, you can return to court or work through a mediator.

Are There Decisions I Don’t Have a Say in if I Have Joint Legal Custody But My Ex Has Sole Physical Custody?

As a matter of practicality, it’s not feasible to be involved in the thousands of decisions that come up weekly or monthly. If your ex has to contact you dozens of times a day to ask if the child should have cereal or eggs for breakfast, if they should have an apple or energy bar for a snack, if they should play with this friend or that after school–nothing will happen because of the time involved, and it will be exhausting and frustrating for everyone, especially the child. Basic day-to-day decisions that don’t necessarily have any long-term effects on the child regarding their health, well-being, and education will be managed by the parent with physical custody.

Is It Common to Have Joint Legal Custody But Not Joint Physical Custody?

California courts encourage parents to find a common path to sharing physical and legal custody whenever possible. However, it’s not always practical for various reasons. While sharing both physical and legal custody happens often, it doesn’t happen all the time

What if I Have Joint Legal Custody, But My Ex Is Making Major Decisions Without My Input and Approval?

The first step, if possible, is to have a heart-to-heart with your ex and make sure they understand what joint legal custody means. It’s also an excellent time to see if you’ve misunderstood your ex’s communications. That can happen surprisingly often. It’s essential that you prepare yourself for the communication so you can stay calm during it. Note: If your ex has a restraining order against you, have your lawyer contact them, so you don’t violate it.

If you suspect your ex has instructed various third parties (pediatrician, teacher, etc.) not to provide information or records that you have legal access to, talk to them directly. Provide copies of the court’s orders showing you have equal legal access to those records. Again, stay calm.

If neither of these approaches works, there are various legal remedies. You could start by asking for mediation. You could file a contempt order against your ex if that doesn’t work. If the situation is particularly egregious, and especially if it looks like it’s no longer in the child’s best interests, you could file for a modification of legal custody, which could result in the ex losing legal custody.

What Should I Do if I Have More Questions about Child Custody and My Rights?

Call us at 909-487-2340 to request an initial consultation. The different types of custody can be complicated, and we want to ensure you understand your rights and have full access to them. We know that you want the best for your child. We also understand California’s custody laws and can work with you to help you be as fully involved in your child’s life as possible.