Sole Legal Custody in California

Sole custody orders give one parent the right to make decisions

Learn About Sole Legal Custody in California

Sole legal custody is often a source of confusion for parents. Let's discuss sole legal custody and dispel some of the myths surrounding it.

Some parents are highly offended at the concept the other parent may have sole decision-making authority over their children. That is a normal reaction. Legal custody can come across as insulting or demeaning to the parent who is shut out of the decision-making process.

- B. Robert Farzad

That is why we wrote this page. We want parents to understand the general concept of sole legal custody in California and under what situations it may be appropriate or inappropriate.

California Family Code 3006

California Family Code 3006 states sole legal custody means that one parent shall have the right and the responsibility to make the decisions relating to the health, education and welfare of a child.

But does the Family Code mean every decision relating to health, education and welfare?

Fortunately, the answer is no and the court can actually award joint legal custody on some issues and sole legal custody on others.

For example, let us assume both parents are good parents but they live hundreds of miles apart from each other and one parent is the primary custodial parent. In such a situation, it makes sense to have joint legal custody on many issues. But perhaps it also makes sense to make the custodial parent the tiebreaker on other issues.

One example of the "other" issue may be where the child attends school. Does it make more sense for the parent who has the child 90% of the time to have the final decision-making authority on that issue? Of course, the answer to that question depends on the facts and family law is fact intensive so no two cases are really identical.

Sole legal custody and special needs children

Another common situation is when one parent has been actively involved in the children's special needs and specifically issues related to their therapy, counseling or medical care. That is not to say the other parent was completely uninvolved but the other parent may be minimally involved for whatever reason. We see the situation commonly when the children's special needs are more serious, more intensive and therefore handled more significantly by the stay-at-home parent.

In the above situation, it may make sense for the parent who has significantly more knowledge on these issues to be the tiebreaker if the parents cannot agree on the therapy, counseling or medical care for the special needs child or children. That is not to say the parents should not communicate and attempt to coparent on the issues. To the contrary, we like orders that require the parents to do so. However, if appropriate, the parents' disagreement does not have to mean the child cannot receive his or her appropriate therapy, counseling or medical care. The parent more equipped to make those decisions consistent with the child's best interest can make the final call.

I'm sure you can think of other examples where it may be reasonable to ask for sole legal custody on some issues and joint legal on others.

"Extreme" situations may justify sole legal custody

But what about those more extreme situations where sole legal custody would be proper on all issues. We use the word "extreme" because we believe it cannot be a normal situation with two good parents (or even one great parent and an average parent) for the court to order sole legal custody on every issue to one parent. These more extreme situations arise when:

  1. One parent suffers from a serious substance abuse problem,
  2. There has been a finding of domestic violence against one parent,
  3. One parent has abused the children, or
  4. There are other circumstances which make one parent unfit to make decisions or otherwise even be involved in the decision-making process on legal custody issues.

These types of sole legal custody issues are not inflexible and there is no substitute for a private consultation with an experienced family law attorney like those at our offices to figure out if sole legal custody is really appropriate for your case.

More reading on legal custody in California

We provide you with three links below on the topic of legal custody. Check them out to learn more about this important topic.