How to Share Joint Legal Custody

Almost every custody order in Michigan awards moms and dads “joint legal custody”. But what does that mean? What are you allowed to do yourself and when do you need to involve your co-parent? Are there any tips or tools to make sharing joint legal custody easier?

What Is Joint Legal Custody?

The term “joint legal custody” doesn’t show up in any Michigan statute. The Child Custody Act says courts have to tell parents about the option of “joint custody”. It also says that the court can award custody to “1 or more of the parties involved” in the custody action and provide for a reasonable parenting time schedule.

Over the years, however, the idea of “legal custody” has taken on a meaning of its own. When lawyers or judges talk about joint legal custody they generally mean that parents will cooperate in making decisions about the child’s health, education, and well-being. But that’s a pretty general statement. What it looks like in day-to-day life can be a bit more complicated.

What Joint Legal Custody Looks Like

Cooperative decision-making is one thing in the abstract. But does it mean you need to pick up the phone when your child wants a midnight snack? No.

Routine decisions of what happens day-to-day are made by the parent exercising parenting time that day. This may include snacks, nap times, meals, screen time, hobbies, homework, cough medicine, and other everyday questions that arise.

It is also usually up to the care-giving parent to decide when to bring in professionals. Each parent gets to make his or her own decisions about child care or urgent care visits, for example. Each parent is also responsible for getting the child to school or extracurricular activities that happen during their parenting time.

However, when professionals do get involved, routine decisions can quickly cross into joint legal custody territory. For example, if a child is registered in a day-care program, he or she may be expected to attend 4-5 days per week. That may mean that both parents need to agree on the same program and cooperate on attendance.

Joint Legal Custody and Medical Decisions

While it is the care-giving parent’s decision whether to take a child to urgent care, as soon as the answer is yes, joint legal custody gets triggered. Each parent has a right to know about medical care of their children. To the extent possible, both parents in a joint legal custody situation should be involved any time a child needs medical treatment.

But in an emergency, sometimes a decision needs to be made before the other parent can be looped in. The modern era of constant connection makes it easier for co-parents to call, text, email, or even voice-chat with doctors and be involved in medical decisions. But in some cases, time is truly of the essence when decisions need to be made.

When the Courts Get Involved in Medical Issues

Family court judges should be seen as a last resort when it comes to medical decision making. A child’s medical decisions are best made by his or her parents and the doctors. However, judges do get involved when parents cant agree on:

  • Vaccinations
  • Elective treatments like braces
  • Denial of medical information between parents

Joint Legal Custody and Education

Another area where joint legal custody comes into play is in educational choices. Unless there is a protective order from the court, parents are always allowed to receive report cards, talk to teachers, and receive notices about school disciplinary problems or special needs assessments. However, some schools improperly limit that information to parents with joint legal custody. In those cases, the non-custodial parent may need to get a court order directing the release of information.

Within education, joint legal custody usually means parents must cooperate to decide:

  • Where the child goes to school
  • Whether to home-school the child
  • What programs or extracurricular activities to enroll the child in
  • Whether the child needs tutoring
  • Special needs decisions

When the Courts Get Involved in Educational Issues

The most common joint legal custody motion is probably a Motion for Change of Schools. These motions usually come up in response to a suspension or other disciplinary action, or because one parent moves into a new school district. In these cases, the family court will be asked to evaluate each school option (often with the help of an expert) and decide which school district is a better situation for the child.

Joint Legal Custody and Religion

One of the trickiest areas of joint legal custody is where parents don’t share the same religious beliefs. To a certain point, a child can simply attend services with each parent during his or her parenting time. However, when it comes time for a child to go through religious rites of passage, such as a bar or bat mitzvah or baptism, these differences of belief can come to a head.

When the Courts Get Involved in Religious Issues

Family court judges are exceptionally hesitant to make decisions regarding a child’s religion. Remember that religious belief and expression are constitutionally protected rights. In most cases, judges facing religious issues will refer the matter to mediation or encourage the parties to resolve the matter themselves. The exception may be:

  • When a parent is being excluded from witnessing or participating in a religious event
  • When a religious expression is putting a child’s safety or well-being in danger
  • When it appears a child’s informed wishes are being ignored in favor a parent’s religious belief

Even then, any ruling you get will most likely be limited to interfere as little as possible with a parent’s sincerely held religious belief.

Tips for Making Joint Legal Custody Work

If you are one of the many families getting used to the idea of co-parenting and joint legal custody, it may feel like every decision is an invitation for a new fight. But there are some ways to make co-parenting easier.

  • Keep the child’s best interests in mind
  • Create a shared calendar that records all your child’s appointments and events.
  • Set up a shared email address that is only used for child-related issues.
  • Whenever possible, avoid responding to communications while emotions are high. Walk away, calm down, then think and respond.
  • Listen to your child in age-appropriate ways about what he or she wants to happen, without putting down the other parent’s opinion or belief
  • Seek help from a parenting time coordinator or mediator when big issues arise

Resolving joint legal custody issues can be difficult and emotionally draining. But having parents who can sit together and talk out their differences will help your children in the long run. Do your best to model cooperation and shared decision making. It will save you money in legal fees, and give your children a better example to follow.


Lisa J. Schmidt is a family law attorney at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She helps families with custody and parenting time concerns. If you are at an impasse on a joint legal custody decision, contact Schmidt & Long to schedule a consultation.