Sole Legal Custody and Decision Making

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Did you know there is a difference between legal custody and physical custody in Utah?

A recent case from the Utah Court of Appeals was issued that explains the difference between physical and legal custody and joint and sole legal custody, and what legal custody really means.

This is the case of Blake v. Smith 2023 UT App 788, you can google that case and read it for yourself.

In Blake v. Smith, at trial, the judge awarded Mother sole physical custody and sole legal custody, but for some very strange reason, the judge also ordered joint decision making…


This is why you have to sometimes wonder how smart or knowledgeable some judges are. Judges aren’t perfect, which is why we have appellate courts.

Well, the Utah Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s decision because if a parent has sole legal custody that parent cannot also have joint decision making.

What was the reasoning?

It has to do with what the definition is of sole legal custody.

The Utah code does not actually define sole physical custody or sole legal custody.

But, through case law, the Utah Supreme court has given some meaning to those terms.

“Legal custody encompasses the ability to make major decisions in a child life, while physical custody encompasses the ability to make day to day decision in a child’s life.”

Joint legal custody is defined by the code as, “the sharing of the rights, privileges, duties, and powers of a parent by both parents.”

In other words, both parents share the authority and responsibility to make basic decisions regarding their child’s welfare.

So, when the trial judge awarded sole legal custody to mother, but then also required joint decision making, it was “inconsistent to simultaneously order a joint decision-making arrangement.”

The court went on to say that based on the court’s findings about how the parents were just not able to get along when parenting the child, that they couldn’t work together to reach the child’s best interest, then why would the court ever order joint decision making?

Pretty maddening and frustrating decision, if you ask me.

This is a good example of why it is so important to not be so combative against the other parent. Try to put the needs of the child first, and your animosity for the other parent aside, because if you don’t, you could make it difficult to get the court to give you joint physical custody.

If the court finds that you are the problem parent, the parent who cannot work well with the other parent, the court may just award the other parent sole legal custody…

Not a good thing.

The court of appeals rightly vacated the portion of the court’s custody award ordering joint decision making, thus making Mother the sole legal custodian and sole legal decision-maker.

Hope this helps you understand a little more about the difference between physical and legal custody and what legal custody really means.

If you have a custody issue you need a lawyer’s help with, such as a custody case or a modification case, give us a call at 801-448-0156, we are the law firm of Fontenot Law, P.C., located in Woods Cross, Utah, serving Davis County and specifically Bountiful.

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