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What does Joint Legal Custody in the State of Maryland really mean?

As reported in our September 30, 2010 blog , there are two parts to custody in the State of Maryland, legal custody and physical custody. Legal custody is the ability to make decisions regarding the child’s health, education, religion and other matters of significant importance. Legal custody can be awarded solely to one parent or jointly to both parents (there are also variations on joint legal custody, such as having one parent as a tie breaker or a requirement to mediate when parents cannot reach a joint decision or assigning each parent sole legal decision making with respect to different issues, ie Mom makes the decisions on education and Dad makes the decisions on health matters and the parents have joint legal custody on religious issues). Maryland courts have held that the strongest factor in determining whether to award joint legal custody is the ability of the parents to communicate with each other regarding the children.

Many clients have questions as to exactly how a joint legal custody situation should operate. Questions such as, “if a doctor makes a recommendation for my child, I do not have to check with the other parent first, right?”, or “do I need to relay all information regarding my child to the other parent?” We tell clients that they can not take a doctors recommendation as the final decision without first discussing it with the other parent, unless it is an emergency situation. Ideally, the parents should attend the medical appointment together so decisions can be reached while with the doctor and the parents are hearing the same information from the doctor. In a joint legal custody situation, ALL decisions regarding the child’s health, education, and religion, whether it be the choice to administer a certain prescription medication, decisions regarding a child’s I.E.P., where the child will attend school, etc. must be discussed with the other parent and a joint decision must be reached.

The other big questions that we are routinely asked surround the sharing of information, such as “do I need to send little John’s report card to his father?”, “do I need to tell little John’s mother that there is a school play on Wednesday night?”. A parent who has joint legal custody, is welcome and encouraged to reach out to the school, doctor, priest/pastor/minister, etc. to obtain and retrieve information/schedules pertaining to their child on their own. Therefore, while a parent has the responsibility to communicate before reaching a legal custodial decision, parents do not have the obligation to be the other parents secretary regarding all upcoming events, providing every grade they receive on a test, and/or copying medical reports, etc. For example, it is not up to one parent to inform the other parent of the back to school night date, or when parent teacher conferences are being held. However, in an ideal situation, the more information parents share between themselves the better it is for the kids involved. Unfortunately, one parent may take advantage of this situation and expect the other parent to provide them with information they otherwise have the ability to obtain. Bottom line, if you are in a joint legal custody situation, when in doubt, discuss with the other parent FIRST and work together for the benefit of your kids.

If you have further questions regarding legal custody in Maryland, contact an experienced Maryland Custody attorney.