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Who Gets to Choose the Kids' School if the Parents are Unmarried?

It’s a difficult decision for the court to make with joint custody in Minnesota

School choice is a major decision to resolve for unmarried parents. Many of these parents live in different school districts from each other, or have different ideas regarding their child’s education. If parents share joint legal custody and still disagree, there is no simple solution.

What is the legal custody of a child designation?

If there is a legal custody agreement in place, the analysis begins there. In Minnesota, legal custody means the right to determine the child’s upbringing, including education, health care, and religious training. Legal custody may be designated “sole legal custody” to one parent, or “joint legal custody” between both parents. Joint legal custody means that both parents have equal rights and decision-making responsibilities, including the right to participate in major decision-making in determining the child’s upbringing, including education, health care, and religious training.

If a parent has sole legal custody, that parent will decide the school. However, many unmarried parents share joint legal custody. This has much to do with the Minnesota child custody laws, which presumes joint legal custody is in the best interest of their child. So even for those parents who have yet to receive a legal custody determination, it’s more likely than not they will share legal custody with the other parent.

Where does it leave parents with joint legal custody?

If this decision is in the court’s hands, it will resolve the dispute based on the best interests of the child. Determining that requires a thorough evaluation of the statutory “best interest factors,” which include the impact the proposed choice or change will have on:

  • The child’s care and general needs
  • The child’s special needs
  • The child’s preference (if older or mature)
  • History and nature of each parent’s participation in providing care for the child
  • Willingness and ability of each parent to provide on-going care, to meet child’s needs, and maintain consistency and follow through with parenting time
  • Effect on child’s well-being and development of the proposed changes to home, school and community
  • Effect of proposed arrangement to the on-going relationships between the child and others important to the child

In addition, the court will evaluate any other factor it finds helpful to making its decision. Such as a parenting plan.

How does physical custody and parenting time factor in the analysis?

Minnesota family courts have held that custody rights and parental rights are determined by the actual custody arrangement, not the labels. Therefore, whether physical custody is sole or joint may be irrelevant. What is more relevant is when and how often the child spends time with each parent. The best interest factors weigh in favor of stability and consistency in the child’s life.

What is the proposed choice or change?

This is possibly the most important factor and the great unknown in this analysis. Regardless of which parent is proposing the choice or change in school, if one choice seems more consistent with the child’s current arrangement, or appears less likely to harm the stability of the current arrangement, the factors will likely weigh in favor of that decision.

This is not an easy decision for a court to decide and cases can only be fully analyzed on an individual basis. For a difficult decision such as this, there is nothing more important to a parent than an honest assessment of their case. This can only be accomplished with legal advice from an experienced Minnesota family law attorney.  A family law attorney can explain child support and other legal issues to protect your legal rights in a custody dispute.

For more information on this area, see our overview of custody and visitation.

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