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How legal custody works after a divorce

Tennessee parents who are getting a divorce and who have young children will also need to make a decision about child custody or have a judge decide. There are two types of custody, physical custody and legal custody.

Physical custody is what many people think of when they use the word "custody" and refers to where a child will live. However, it is different from legal custody. Legal custody refers to the right of a parent to make decisions about areas of a child's life such as education, health care and religion. Parents will almost always share joint legal custody. It is usually considered to be in the best interests of the child, but there are cases in which one parent will be awarded sole legal custody. For example, the divorce may have happened because the father had severe substance abuse and addiction issues. In a case like this, the mother may be granted sole legal custody.

If parents share legal custody and one parent makes decisions about health care, religion, education and similar issues without consulting the other, that parent could be found in contempt of court. One parent may have physical custody while parents share legal custody.

Ideally, parents will be able to negotiate a custody and visitation arrangement. Since they may be co-parenting together for many years, it is best if they can cooperate on matters pertaining to their children. A parenting agreement may also help reduce conflict. Negotiated during the divorce and often with the help of the parents' respective attorneys, it can cover issues ranging from bed times to homework to vacations to when children meet new partners. Over time, parents may need to make changes as their children get older and their needs change. Parents should try to negotiate these types of changes without returning to court although major changes such as child support modifications must be done through the court system.

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