“Legal custody” is the term used (at least in California) to describe the legal power of divorced parents to make certain essential decisions concerning their minor children. I believe that married couples inherently both share this legal decision-making power over their minor children unless the Court has suspended the parent’s legal rights. However, when a marriage ends, the parents’ inherent power over their minor children must be made formal as part of their divorce decree.
After a divorce, legal custody over minor children is either held jointly by both parents (joint legal custody) or is held by only one parent (sole legal custody). Some of the fundamental subject areas where parents exercise this legal power over their minor children are:
a) medical (choice of doctors, choice of treatment, matters related to elective surgery/medical procedures like orthodontics),
b) counseling (entering the children into psychotherapy and/or family counseling),
c) theological (religious training and upbringing), and
d) educational (private school, religious school, home schooling or public school).
Hopefully, many of these significant child-rearing topics were discussed and agreed upon before marriage or before the children were born. However that does not mean that they never come up again either in a divorce or after separation. In fact, in some cases the conflict on these topics may contribute to the divorce in the first place.
Moreover, I can say that many other decisions concerning children are rarely discussed or firmly resolved between the couple prior to, or during, marriage. Many of these issues are simply abstractions for newlyweds that only need to be resolved when their children come of age or as circumstances require. I am sure that most newlywed couples believe that together they can face any problem which arises during their marriage.
However, the mere existence of the divorce can bring some concerns about child rearing to the forefront and once they surface they need to be resolved as part of their divorce mediation. Some examples which come immediately to mind are:
a) the wisdom in allowing the children to play certain after school sports,
b) incurring the cost to allow the children to engage in certain after school enrichment activities,
c) the determination as to what age the children are going to be allowed their own cell phone and/or video console,
d) the issues relating to the children obtaining a driver’s license or having their own car, (and who is going to pay for the child’s car insurance)
e) the suitability of the minor child getting a job and at what age
f) the age to permit dating,
g) subjects relating to body piercings and/or tattoos, and
h) concerns about children wearing makeup or coloring their hair.
Not every set of divorcing parents resolves all of these issues in mediation but some subset of these or similar questions frequently arise.