Legal Custody


When the custodial status of a child is within the four walls of the court system, this usually means that there are serious concerns in the child’s life. Sometimes the concerns revolve around the behavioral issues of the child, so much so that the parents are having difficulty caring for him or her. Another possibility may be that the parents are unable or unwilling to care for their child because of their own faults or habits. Divorce proceedings can also bring the matter of child custody to the court room.

Regardless of how the complex issue of the custodial status of a child is brought to the court’s attention, the primary consideration for the court should always be what is in the best interest of the child. In the eyes of the court, the final custodial disposition should be based on who can provide for the basic needs of the child.

Next, we’ll explore the basics of legal custody.

Legal Custody Basics

Legal custody is a form of custody that is intended to be permanent in nature. Legal custody is a legal status that vests certain rights and duties with the person or persons designated as the legal custodian(s). As custodian of a child, you have the right to have physical care and control of the child. Additionally, it is both your right and duty as legal custodian to provide for all of the child’s basic, medical, and educational needs, and to both protect and discipline the child. Let’s go over an example to clarify how this might work.

Legal Custody Example – Suzy & Children Services

Let’s assume that a county Children Services Board files a complaint with the local juvenile court requesting that a child by the name of Suzy be found dependent. The basis for the finding of dependency is based on the fact that Mom and Dad have abandoned Suzy, thus making the child homeless. As a result, Children Services asks that the court award legal custody of Suzy to her maternal grandmother. If the court grants such a disposition, Suzy’s grandmother will have the right to determine where and with whom the child lives. Suzy’s grandmother will also have the duty to ensure that she has adequate food, clothing, and shelter, and that she is attending school and receiving any and all necessary medical treatment. As you can see, the award of legal custody is not to be taken lightly! It brings with it great responsibility to the person who is designated legal custodian.

Next, let’s take a look at the residual rights, privileges, and obligations of non-custodial parents.

Residual Rights, Privileges, and Obligations

We just learned that the person or persons granted legal custody of a child have tremendous rights, duties, and responsibilities with respect to the care and control of the child. However, although legal custody is a form of custody that is intended to be permanent in nature, the non-custodial biological parents have residual rights, privileges, and obligations that relate to the child. What does this mean?

Well, for starters, "residual" is synonymous with the word "remaining". In other words, non-custodial natural parents have rights that remain with them, despite the fact that they are not the legal custodian of the child. Although the laws may vary slightly from state to state, natural parents usually maintain the right to consent to the adoption of the child, the privileges of reasonable visitation with the child and determining the child’s religious affiliation, and the obligation to pay child support to the legal custodian of the child. Let’s go back to Suzy and her grandmother from the previous page as an example.

Legal Custody Example – Suzy & Children Services

If you remember, Suzy’s grandmother was awarded legal custody of the child after she was abandoned by her parents. As legal custodian, grandma now has care and control of the child, and must ensure that all of her basic, medical, and educational needs are being met.

Let’s assume that Suzy’s parents return to her life several months later. They are upset to find that grandma now has legal custody of Suzy, and they are demanding that grandma let them see the child. Because grandma has legal custody, Suzy’s parents have the right to have some form of reasonable visitation with their daughter. They also have every right to determine her religious affiliation. If grandma wants Suzy to be a Jehova’s Witness, and her parents want her to be a practicing Catholic, Suzy will follow the teachings of Catholicism. Additionally, if grandma wants to adopt Suzy at some point, she will only be able to do so with the consent of both of Suzy’s parents.

With these rights and privileges comes an obligation, as well. Both of Suzy’s parents have the obligation to pay child support to grandma. The theory behind this is that because legal custody still allows the natural parents to have great rights and privileges with respect to the child, they should be obligated to help the person who has been designated as the child’s custodian. (This is very different from permanent custody, where the rights of the natural parents are completely terminated.)

Finally, we’ll conclude this article with a few key points to remember.


In this article, we looked at the basics of legal custody, some examples on how legal custody works, and rights, privileges, and obligations that come with legal custody. Now, you should have a better understanding of some of the issues involved with legal custody.

Further, legal custody is intended to be a form of permanent custody. Like actual permanent custody, legal custody brings with it the great responsibility of caring for the child until the age of majority. Unlike permanent custody, the natural parents retain residual rights, privileges, and obligations that allow them to remain a part of their child’s life, and that force them to support the person who has been designated and the child’s legal custodian.

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