With Joint Legal Custody, If Parents Cannot Agree on Education and Health Care Decisions, the Court Will Decide
Under Minnesota law, Minnesota Statute 518.003(3)(b)(2013), joint legal custody means that both parents have equal legal rights regarding the child’s upbringing, including decisions regarding education and health care. If parents disagree on major decisions, such as which school a child should attend, they need to bring the dispute to the court to resolve rather than making unilateral decisions without the agreement of the other parent. Himley v. Himley, No. A-12-1876 (Minn. Ct. App. Aug. 26, 2013.
While in many cases, parents agree to joint legal custody because they share a parenting philosophy and get along well enough to make important decisions together, the court may order joint legal custody even if the parents disagree. Thus, in Himley, the district court had ordered joint physical and legal custody even though the parents had a “terrible relationship” and were incapable of cooperating on parenting issues because both were good parents and had good relationships with the child, making joint custody in the best interests of the child.
In Himley, although the court order provided that the child live with the mother in New Ulm during the school year and with the father in Edina during the summer, the mother and her new husband moved to Elk River without the father’s knowledge or consent. As a result, the father moved to require the child to attend school in Edina and live with the father during the school year.
In ruling that the district court did not abuse its discretion in finding that the child should attend school in Edina, the father’s hometown, the Minnesota Court of Appeals emphasized that one statutory factory in determining the child’s best interest was “the disposition of each parent to encourage and permit frequent continuing contact by the other parent with the child.” Minn. Stat. 518.17(1)(a)(13)(2013). The court noted that the mother had used her living location, both in moving to New Ulm and later to Elk River, to limit the father’s access to his child. The court also noted that the mother had no right to unilaterally change the child’s school enrollment from New Ulm to Elk River without the father’s consult. In finding that living in Edina was in the child’s best interest, the court also noted that the child could be able to spend time before and after school with his father instead of having to attend childcare, and the child had no connections at all in Elk River whereas the child knew other children in Edina and would also be able to spend more time with his stepsister.
The court also held that the change in parenting-time was “a necessary, collateral consequence” of the joint legal custody decision regarding school choice and not a modification of custody or parenting time. The court noted that, with the modified schedule, the mother, who was a teacher, would have the summer, when she was off of work, with her child. The court also gave the mother every Wednesday overnight, even though it noted that the round trip distance between the two parents’ homes was 80 miles. The court found that the new schedule maximized the child’s time with both parents, spending time before and after school with the father during the school year and spending the summer with the mother, when she was not working.
The court also found that the district court was within its discretion in not holding an evidentiary hearing, noting that a party in a family-law case has a right to an evidentiary hearing only if he or she requests such a hearing. In this case, the mother did not request an evidentiary hearing although the court made it clear that it would not hold an evidentiary hearing unless one was requested.
The court also did not address the mother’s argument that the district court judge was biased against her because she did not make that argument to the district court, either by a motion to remove the judge or a motion for a new trial.
Any parent who has joint legal custody and disagrees with the other parent on a major parenting decision, such as which school the child should attend, should not act unilaterally and should consult an experienced family law attorney.