Determining how you will share parental responsibilities and privileges with your child's other parent can be an extremely complex process. Until they face the prospect of divorce or negotiating custody, many parents do not even realize that there are several different types of custody that a parent can hold or share. Legal custody is often one of the most difficult types of custody to get one's head around.
When many people think of gaining custody of a child, they think about physically having the child live with them. While that is certainly one of the main forms, legal custody deals with making decisions about the way that a child will be raised and other important, "big picture" decisions.
These kinds of decisions may include the kind of education that a child receives, such as whether to attend one school over another, whether a child will receive certain kinds of medical treatment or abide by certain kinds of dietary restrictions. A parent who retains legal custody may have to make a difficult decision where the other parent is opposed.
It is worth noting that courts generally prefer to award parents joint legal custody even if one parent or the other is granted primary physical custody. It is often considered to be in the best interests of the child for both parents to have input on large life decisions for the child.
If you face a custody negotiation with your child's other parent, you should always do so with the guidance of an experienced attorney who understands the laws of your state and is familiar with the legal system in your area and its key players. With proper legal guidance, you can ensure that your child's best interests are kept at the heart of the negotiations.
Source: FindLaw, "Legal Custody," accessed April 25, 2017