One of the most important issues when parents are divorcing is how they will make future decisions for their child. In Illinois “legal custody” refers to decision-making power. “Residential custody,” where the child primarily resides, is another issue. Decisions made by someone with legal custody include choosing the child’s school, medical provider, medical treatments, religion, extra-curricular activities, and other important decisions.
The court can grant legal custody to both parents. This is called “joint legal custody”. The court can also grant decision-making power to just one parent. This is called “sole legal custody”. When a parent has sole legal custody, he or she usually does not have to consult the other parent before making major decisions for the child. However, every case is different. The court may require parties to make some decisions jointly, such as selecting schools for the child, but it may grant only one parent the authority to make decisions on other issues, such as medical-related issues. Every parent with a custody judgment should be intimately familiar with its terms. We recommend that parties re-read the custody judgment at least once per year.
The court does not have a specified preference for either joint legal custody or sole legal custody, though courts in Chicago tend to want both parents to be involved in the child’s life as much as possible. The court awards one or both parents legal custody based on the child’s best interests. The court examines certain factors when making this decision, and these factors are outlined in 750 ILCS 5/602. Existing case law also affects the court’s analysis of these factors. Joint legal custody works when parents are able to communicate with each other regarding the child’s well-being, regardless of whatever occurred between the parents to end their relationship. Parents who constantly fight and cannot agree even on small issues may not be good candidates to share joint custody. Joint custody may also be inappropriate in situations where one spouse is abusive towards the other and uses his or her influence to force the other spouse to agree with him or her on all matters.
Parties can either agree on the issue of legal custody, or they can ask the court to decide on legal custody. People who cannot agree on the issue of legal custody should be aware that contested custody cases are time-consuming, expensive, and very stressful. A good family law attorney should be able to advise you on legal custody options for your particular situation and can tailor a custody judgment to meet your needs.