Legal Decision Making Authority

The term “child custody” in Arizona has been changed to “legal decision making authority”. Most people who inquire about parenting arrangements for children are more familiar with the term “custody”. An issue regarding legal decision making authority is commenced in actions that are filed in the superior court within the county in which the minor child permanently resides.

Generally, the issues of legal decision making authority for minor children arise in actions associated with dissolution, legal separation, maternity, and paternity matters. However, a person other than a parent may file a petition for legal decision making authority of a child, if that person meets the statutory requirements of a person who has been treated as a parent by the child and who has formed a meaningful parental relationship with the child for a substantial period of time. That person is defined as “in loco parentis.”

The term “legal decision making authority” refers to the person or persons assigned the responsibility for the care of the minor child. The daily care of the minor child, and the right to make legal decisions regarding the minor child’s best interests, i.e., medical, educational, religious and extracurricular activities are generally encompassed in this term. Legal decision making authority does not refer to the amount of parenting time or the parenting time schedule that either parent spends with the minor child.

Sole Legal Decision Making Authority:

One parent has the legal right and responsibility to make major decisions for a child. A.R.S. § 25-401(6)

Joint Legal Decision Making Authority:

Both parents share decision-making authority regarding the child’s best interests. Neither parent’s rights are superior, except with respect to specified decisions as set forth by the Court or the parents in final judgment or order. A.R.S. § 25-401(2)

Parenting Time:

“Parenting time” means the schedule of time during which each parent has access to a child at specified times. Each parent during their scheduled parenting time is responsible for providing the child with food, clothing and shelter and may make routine decisions concerning the child’s care. A.R.S. § 25-401(5)

Before an award of joint legal decision making authority is made, the Court requires the parents to submit a proposed parenting plan, which sets forth the details for making decisions, a parenting time schedule, holidays, vacations, a procedure for disputes, and specific statutory language. The parenting time schedule is based upon many factors, including the child’s best interests, parental fitness, and each parents’ work schedule. The Arizona Supreme Court booklet, “Planning for Parenting Time-Arizona’s Guide for Parents Living Apart,” is a useful source for determining age-appropriate parenting time schedules.

Parenting Fitness:

Legal decision making authority and parenting time issues are the most emotional components of Family Law litigation. Consequently, issues related to legal decision making authority and parenting time are often the reasons that a Family Law case takes longer to process, becomes more expensive, and produces results that were not anticipated by the client. Generally, claims regarding parental fitness or claims that involve issues that affect the safety and/or well-being of the minor child also fall into this category.

Domestic violence, substance abuse, molestation issues, and other issues that threaten the safety and/or well-being of the child often require the assistance of additional professionals. In those cases, the Court often appoints evaluators for the purpose of determining the parents’ fitness for a party to have legal decision making authority and to establish a parenting time schedule in the best interests of the child.

In some cases, both parties are fit and proper parents; however, they require assistance for the purpose of preparing a parenting plan, including a parenting time schedule. In those cases, the Court has the ability to require the parties to attend Mediation, Conciliation Services, or an Evaluation, for the purpose of facilitating a parenting plan.

Modification & Enforcement:

Legal decision making and parenting time orders that have previously been awarded in a case may require modification prior to the time a child reaches the age of majority. In that event, a parent may file an action, provided that statutory requirements are met for the purpose of seeking a modification.

Similarly, if a party fails to comply with existing legal decision making and parenting time orders, the other party may require assistance for the purpose of enforcing compliance. Under such circumstances, a party may seek an enforcement action or contempt action against the other party and may request sanctions and an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

Please consider the Family Law team at Udall Shumway PLC if you need assistance regarding legal decision making authority, parenting time issues, or modification/enforcement matters. We would like the opportunity to offer our knowledge and guidance.