Joint legal custody generally means that both parents are to make all major child-rearing decisions together, i.e., decisions involving a child’s health, education, religion, and general welfare.
In New York, when two parties share joint legal custody with no further provisions such as those discussed below, the parties must seek court intervention when they cannot reach an agreement relative to such issues.
Recognizing the likelihood of a future disagreement, a comprehensive settlement agreement or child custody agreement can provide alternatives to seeking court intervention.
Spheres of Influence
One way to provide for the resolution of a disagreement is to afford each parent specific areas in which he or she will have final decision making authority, or “spheres of influence.”
Spheres of influence allow each parent to maintain final decision-making authority in different aspects of the children’s lives. For instance, one parent may have final decision-making authority regarding the children’s medical issues and sports programs, while the other parent may have authority for all educational and religion issues.
A settlement agreement may set forth that the parties are bound to submit any disputed issue to a third party “tiebreaker.”
Common tiebreaker methods are the duty to consult with a professional in the area of the disagreement, such as consulting with the child’s guidance counselor or teacher regarding an educational issue, or the submission of the issue to a parenting coordinator, mediator, or arbitrator.
In such circumstances, the third party will attempt to help the parties reach an agreement or ultimately provide a recommendation that will be accepted as the final decision and be implemented.
Another avenue for resolving a disagreement is to allow the child’s wishes to be controlling. For example, if one parent wants to enroll a child in ballet lessons, and the other wants to enroll the child in gymnastics, then the child’s preference to attend one will control.
Certainly, this method must take into consideration the children’s ages at the time of the dissolution of the marriage, and also be cognizant of the various areas of major child-rearing decisions that the parties may or may not want to apply this to.
Finally, some parties may find that it will work best for their children to afford one parent final decision-making authority for one child and the authority for the other child(ren) to the other parent.
This is not necessarily a common arrangement, but when used, the designation of authority may best be applied by gender (where applicable), or in circumstances where one child primarily resides with one parent and another child primarily resides with the other parent.
As always, even if divorced parties do not enumerate conflict resolution methods within an agreement, the courts remain available to intervene when necessary.