In part one, we explained that Florida has three kinds of parental responsibility, sometimes called legal custody: Shared, shared with assigned ultimate decision-making authority and sole. Parental responsibility is the right and responsibility to make major life decisions for a minor child. Parents separating, divorcing or never married may negotiate an agreement called a parenting plan that includes their decision on the kind of parental responsibility they want. The court may adopt the agreement as part of its order or may decide on its own based on the best interests of the child.
Review of shared responsibility
As we discussed in part one, Florida law directs the court to assign shared parental responsibility unless it would be detrimental to the child. Shared parental responsibility requires that parents work together to reach agreement on major life decisions impacting the child’s welfare like those involving medical care, education, religion, activities and anything else unique to the family in question. When they cannot agree on a decision, they normally submit the question to the court to decide in the child’s best interest.
Ultimate decision-making authority within shared legal custody
A middle ground between shared and sole parental responsibility is a shared arrangement in which one parent has ultimate authority to decide certain issues. The applicable statute says that in shared parental responsibility, “the court may consider the expressed desires of the parents and may grant to one party the ultimate responsibility over specific aspects of the child’s welfare …”
For example, in Aiala v. Larkin, the appeals court said the trial court was within its discretion to order that the parties have shared parental responsibility, but with the mother having ultimate decision-making authority on the child’s nonemergency health care issues when the parents are not able to agree. Evidence showed that the father would not take his child to medical appointments, but when he offered, his girlfriend took the child to their appointment instead of the father. In addition, he did not have detailed understanding of the child’s medical care and was inconsistent in giving the child their medications.
Florida appeals courts, however, routinely hold that it is error for trial courts to grant shared parental responsibility combined with ultimate decision-making authority on all the child’s major life issues. Judges see this as the equivalent of sole parental responsibility because one parent has the final say on every decision anyway.
Division of responsibilities
The law also says that in a shared parental responsibility arrangement, the parents could divide decision-making authority by specific areas of responsibility to reflect the child’s best interests. For example, one parent may handle the child’s activities and the other parent educational decisions, with the remaining areas of responsibility being shared.
In part three, we will talk about sole parental responsibility in Florida.