How Does Joint Legal Custody Work in South Carolina?

Petition for Child custody

Married parents who are divorcing, and unmarried parents who are living in different households, are almost always concerned about custody of their children. If you and your spouse or partner are planning to live apart, you probably are, too (and that’s probably why you’re reading these words). Parents who are new to questions of child custody often assume that custody means which parent a child lives with. And it does—to an extent.

What Does Joint Legal Custody Mean?

“Physical custody” refers to which parent the child lives with; the person with physical custody takes care of the child’s day-to-day needs. “Joint physical custody” means that the child lives with both parents part of the time, though time may not be split equally between the parents. Generally, the parent who has custody of a child at a given time makes the call on ordinary daily decisions.

But parents have to make bigger decisions for their children than what’s for lunch, how much screen time is allowed, or what time bedtime will be. How and where will the child be educated? What religion, if any, will they be raised in? What medical treatment will the child receive, and who will provide it?

These bigger decisions that have a profound effect on a child’s life are made by the parent or parents with “legal custody” of the child. Like physical custody, legal custody can be sole (vested in one parent) or joint (shared by both parents). Joint custody is much more common. Let’s talk about why that is, and how to get joint legal custody in South Carolina.

Why South Carolina Courts Prefer Joint Custody

In an ideal world, parents would be able to live together in harmony and work together for the good of their children. We all know that this isn’t an ideal world, and living together in harmony with a co-parent sometimes just doesn’t work out. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still work together for a shared goal—the well-being of the children you had together.

The State of South Carolina generally believes it is better for children to have both parents deeply involved in their upbringing. In fact, “the best interest of the child” is the guiding principle in all South Carolina decisions. It may not always make practical sense for parents to share equal time with their child, especially if they live far apart, but they can both be involved in major decisions affecting the child. When parents can work together on issues of importance to a child’s life, the child feels more supported and secure.

For this reason, South Carolina courts typically favor joint legal custody arrangements, and will usually not order sole legal custody unless there is a compelling reason to do so. If you want joint legal custody, all you usually need to do is make that known to the court.

When Parents With Joint Custody Can’t Get Along

Joint custody works best when parents can communicate, cooperate, and focus on their shared goal—doing what’s best for their child—while putting their own preferences and differences aside. Of course, parents who break up usually do so because they are having trouble getting along. When that trouble extends to difficulty sharing information and working together for the sake of their children, a joint legal custody arrangement becomes more challenging. Fortunately, there are things that can make co-parenting in a joint legal custody arrangement a little easier.

A well-written custody order is an important start. A good order will be specific enough to provide clear guidance about rights and responsibilities, and flexible enough to work in real life. While joint legal custody means that both parents share in making major decisions, it may be appropriate to give one parent primary control over certain decisions. For instance, if the parents live across the country from each other, it may make sense for the child with whom the parent lives most of the time to have the final say about school-related decisions.

The order for joint legal custody may require the parents to use a co-parenting app or website, or the parents can do this on their own. For parents who struggle to communicate or remain cordial, these tools can be a godsend. Co-parenting apps allow parents to send each other messages, share calendars, send bills or receipts and requests for reimbursements, and even share pictures and journal entries involving the child. Communications are usually time-stamped in case they need to be verified for a court, and they often cannot be deleted—which keeps communications civil.

Co-parenting tools make it possible for parents who would prefer not to interact directly with one another to exchange important information. They can also help to foster goodwill between parents who take the time to share pictures and stories about the child’s day that the other parent would otherwise have missed. Generating goodwill can make future interactions easier.

A joint legal custody order can also help parents by specifying how any disputes that arise will be dealt with: for example, through Collaborative process, mediation or the services of a parenting coordinator.

If you have questions about joint legal custody in South Carolina, we invite you to contact Brinkley Law Firm to schedule a consultation.