In the context of family law, “legal custody” refers to an arrangement in which a parent retains the right to make, or participate in making decisions regarding the child's welfare. In reality, however, the definition is much more complex. First, it's important to understand the difference between major and/or long-term decisions versus day-to-day decisions. Major decisions include, but are not limited to, choice of school, religious practices, and serious medical procedures. Day-to-day decisions are much more encompassing, including a vast array of actions related to a child's daily routine. In most cases, day-to-day decisions are left to the parent with primary custody, which makes sense considering that the child lives with that parent most of the time.
Unfortunately, things are not always so black and white when it comes to decisions for one's children. Take vaccinations for example: For one parent, it's a minor procedure that needs to be done in order to send the child to school In the meanwhile, the other parent is convinced that vaccines are full of harmful toxins with serious long-term side effects. Because this is a medical procedure, the non-custodial parent may have grounds to oppose it in court. Other actions, however, are not at all clear in how they may effect a child long-term. Body piercing and tattoos are a common source of arguments between parents and children. New Jersey laws allow piercing and tattooing on minors with written consent from a parent or legal guardian, but in the case of divorced parents, one party may oppose the procedure based on his or her legal custody rights.
If it seems a bit silly for the courts to get involved in such matters, keep in mind that actress Halle Barry actually took her ex, Gabriel Aubry, to court over his decision to straighten and lighten their daughter's hair. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that she won. Well, technically, the judge ruled that neither parent can change their daughter's hair in any major way, e.g. bleaching, chemical straightening, etc. Barry's argument, which essentially focused on the psychological damage her daughter may suffer from her ex's attempts to make her look less African-American, caused considerable controversy, but it's unlikely that the ruling was based on this issue. The decision may have been easier if one of the parties was a primary custodian, but since Barry and her ex share custody, it's most likely that the judge ruled in favor of what he believed was in the child's best interests.
The lesson here is that there is no set definition for “legal custody”, which can change and evolve as a child grows older. While parents should try to reach a compromise on their own, perhaps with help from their attorneys and/or a mediator, court intervention may be necessary, even on seemingly minor issues such as hair treatments. For more information on your how to assert and protect your legal custody rights, please speak with the attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.