Meriwether & Tharp, LLC
6788799000 Meriwether & Tharp, LLC 1545 Peachtree Street NE, Suite 300 Varied
If you have divorce questions

What does Legal Custody of a Child Mean?

What is legal custody?

What is Legal Custody?

In Georgia, legal custody determines which parent will have the ultimate authority to make major decisions concerning the child or children involved. Legal custody may either be granted to one parent or shared between both parents. When both parents share decision-making for their child, it is called joint legal custody.

Notably, Legal custody does NOT relate to how actual physical time with the child is split between each parent. Time with a minor child is determined by physical custody.

How is Legal Custody Determined?

Similar to physical custody, the determination of which parent will be a child's legal custodian may be made by agreement of the parents (memorialized in a parenting plan approved by a judge) or directly by the judge presiding over the case. As with all other matters concerning child custody, a court will make a determination regarding final decision-making authority according to Georgia's best interest of the child standard.

Core Concepts behind Legal Custody

Physical Custody is different than Legal Custody

Physical Custody does NOT determine Legal Custody

The division of physical time with a child is NOT determinative of legal custody.  Accordingly, although a court may award primary custody to one parent, it can (and usually does) award joint legal custody to both parents.
There must be a final decision maker for legal custody

There MUST be a final decision maker

Even in cases with joint legal custody, a final decision maker is required for matters affecting the child's education, health, extracurricular activities, and religion.

Parents can split final legal custody decisions

Final decision making can be split

A court can (and often does) split final decision making authority between the parents and even places various limitations upon the exercise of final decision making. 

Critical Legal Custody Decisions to Consider

Although legal custody is often an afterthought to physical custody concerns, many decisions related to a child can be very important. You should pay particular attention to the following categories of legal decisions in your case.
Medical Decision Making

Medical Decision Making

A parent who has final medical decision-making authority can determine when and where the child will obtain non-emergency medical treatment, what medical or surgical procedures the child will undergo, and what medications the child will take. These decisions include decisions as seemingly minor as whether the child may wear glasses or contacts to major decisions, like whether they undergo a particular type of surgery. It has been our experience that some of the most contested medical decisions are whether a child will wear braces, have ADHD Treatment, various elective surgeries, and when there is a choice between various treatment options.
Educational Decision Making

Educational Decision Making

Our experience is that the most discussed educational decision-making area for a child is whether a child will attend public or private school. While important, educational decision-making is much broader than this decision. It also includes whether to hold a child back a grade, allow them to take certain classes, or possibly even homeschooled.

Extracurricular Activities and legal custody

Extracurricular Activities

Although many do not realize it, one often contentious issue regarding child custody involves the child's extracurricular activities. Questions regarding whether the child will participate in football, ballet, baseball, or tap, and what limits, if any, should be placed on a child's involvement in extracurricular activities often lead to disagreements between parents. Additionally, scheduling issues and the possibility that an activity sponsored by one parent may infringe on the other parent's parenting time may also lead to disagreements. Although ideally, the parents agree on these decisions, the parent with final decision-making authority regarding extra-curricular activities controls in the event of disagreement.

decision making regarding religion for a child


If the parents have religious differences, final decision-making authority for religion or religious training may become a very contentious issue. As a result, it is better to spend the time having detailed and thorough conversations with the other parent so that clear provisions can be included in your custody agreement. If one parent is awarded final decision-making authority regarding the religious upbringing or training of a child, it is important that the other parent not actively interfere with that authority.

What is the Difference between Legal and Physical Custody?

Legal custody addresses who has the final say-so regarding various decisions related to a child. Physical custody, on the other hand, deals with how time with a child is allocated between their parents.

Did this article help you?
Thank you, we appreciate your feedback!