A divorce decree that involves minor children must address legal decision-making for those minor children. Arizona defines legal decision-making as: “the legal right and responsibility to make all nonemergency legal decisions for a child including those regarding education, health care, religious training and personal care decisions.” See A.R.S. § 25-401(3)
Joint legal decision-making is a common parental authority agreement. A.R.S. § 25-401(2) defines joint legal decision-making as: “both parents share decision-making and neither parent’s rights or responsibilities are superior except with respect to specified decisions as set forth by the court or the parents in the final judgment or order.”
Joint legal decision-making necessitates that both parents work together to make decisions that are in the best interests of the child. However, when parents will not cooperate, the family court is often called upon to make decisions regarding legal decision-making. When the court finds that a child’s health may be jeopardized by one parent, it may determine that the other parent should have sole legal decision-making authority.
While A.R.S. § 25-401(3) empowers the court to “determine legal decision-making and parenting time,” nothing in the statute authorizes the court to make legal decisions concerning a child’s life. The court’s statutorily prescribed role is not to make decisions in place of parents but, instead, to decide which fit parent or parents shall make such decisions. Rather, the court must be guided by the best interests of a child in assigning legal decision-making authority.
The court may require the parents to consult with one another in good faith – a requirement that often serves the child’s best interests by encouraging parental cooperation and informed decisions – but an award of joint legal decision-making that gives final authority to one parent is, in reality, an award of sole legal decision-making. See A.R.S. § 25-410(6)
In summary, if the court determines that the parents cannot cooperate or agree, the court may choose which parent shall decide, but the court itself cannot make the actual decision(s) about the child. Moreover, if the decree awards joint legal decision-making with one parent having final decision-making authority, it is interpreted as awarding sole legal decision-making authority.
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