Decision-Making in Joint Legal Custody
June 26, 2017 § 4 Comments
Jessica Timmons had a baby by Jason Taylor, and the two filed a joint pleading to establish paternity and all of the attendant relief. They agreed that Jessica would have physical custody, and that she and Jason would share joint legal custody.
They later had a falling out because Jessica wanted their child to attend a particular private school, and Jason did not agree. Their dispute would up before a chancellor, who ruled that Jessica had the right to make the call, since she was the physical custodian. Jason appealed.
In In the Matter of C.T.; Taylor v. Timmons, handed down June 6, 2017, the COA affirmed. Judge Lee wrote for a unanimous court:
¶7. Taylor argues that the chancellor erred when he found that although Timmons and Taylor shared joint legal custody, Timmons—as the custodial parent—was entitled to make decisions regarding where the child would attend school. At trial, the chancellor noted that Taylor felt strongly that the child should attend a certain private school. The chancellor also noted that Taylor was given input to voice his position, but that the ultimate decision in regard to where the child would attend school belonged to Timmons as the custodial parent. For support, Taylor cites Mississippi Code Annotated section 93-5-24(5)(e) (Rev. 2013), which states in relevant part:
“joint legal custody” means that the parents or parties share the decision-making rights, the responsibilities and the authority relating to the health, education and welfare of a child. An award of joint legal custody obligates the parties to exchange information concerning the health, education and welfare of the minor child, and to confer with one another in the exercise of decision-making rights, responsibilities and authority.
¶8. Taylor is correct that joint legal custody imparts shared decision-making rights relating to the child’s education. However, Taylor fails to note that section 93-5-24(5)(e) also provides that in cases of joint physical and legal custody, “unless allocated, apportioned or decreed, the parents or parties shall confer with one another in the exercise of decision making rights, responsibilities and authority.” (Emphasis added). Here, the chancellor allocated to Timmons the “discretion to make a determination about where the child goes to school.”
¶9. “Mississippi statutory law and jurisprudence recognize that the chancellor may indeed allocate decision-making and duties to each parent sharing joint legal custody.” Carpenter v. Lyles, 120 So. 3d 1031, 1037 (¶22) (Miss. Ct. App. 2013) (citing Goudelock v. Goudelock, 104 So. 3d 158, 165 (¶¶29-30) (Miss. Ct. App. 2012); Purviance v. Burgess, 980 So. 2d 308, 312-13 (¶¶18-20) (Miss. Ct. App. 2007)). “In cases where decision[-]making was apportioned, courts have determined that joint legal custody, including the communication required in support of such relationship, requires no moment-to-moment input or veto power over every large and small decision on child rearing . . . .” Id. Mississippi caselaw also recognizes that “the custodial parent may determine the child’s upbringing, including his education and health and dental care. Such discretion is inherent in custody. It is vested in the custodial [parent.]” Clements v. Young, 481 So. 2d 263, 267 (Miss. 1985); see also Ayers v. Ayers, 734 So. 2d 213, 217 (¶20) (Miss. Ct. App. 1999).
¶10. Here, the chancellor was well within his discretion to allocate this decision-making to one parent. Further, our caselaw favors the custodial parent having the discretion for such a decision. Accordingly, we do not find that the chancellor abused his discretion in allocating to Timmons the decision-making authority in regard to where the child attends school. Therefore, this issue is without merit.
No quarrel with that from me.
BUT … what to do when the parties share both legal and physical custody? In this district we require that one parent or the other have final decision-making authority. You can read a post about it here, if you care to.
When you are counselling your client about custody issues, it’s a good idea to acquaint her or him with the concept that, although all is hunky-dory between them today, things can change, and what seems so easy and agreeable now may be infested with considerable volatility and hostility later. It’s better to make the lines of authority clear now, while negotiations are under way, than to have to fight through months and even years of litigation and attorney’s fees later. No, it’s not a simple issue to negotiate through, but it’s well worth the trouble addressing it up front. If you take the easy way out and sell your client on a joint-legal and -physical arrangement that later winds up biting him or her, it’s going to leave a bitter taste in that client’s mouth.