Raising a tiny human involves far more than being there for them physically. Doing things like planning birthday parties, making sure their homework is done, deciding whether they should get the flu shot this year, signing them up for extracurricular activities, and figuring out if and when to introduce them to your family’s religious and cultural traditions, are all part of parenting.

New Mexico state law recognizes that doing these sorts of things, which ensure your child’s emotional and developmental needs are met, is an important part of the parenting process. And these tasks, which often involve making decisions on behalf of your child, can be broadly classified as legal custody. 

No matter what your physical custody agreement looks like, Attorney Bob Matteucci of Matteucci Family Law can help you negotiate a legal custody agreement that ensures you and your child’s other parent are on the same page when it comes time to make important decisions about your child’s future. 

What is Legal Custody?

When most people hear the word “custody,” they think about the time they get to spend with their child. But just like spending time with your kids is only one part of being a parent, it is also just one part of custody. 

  • Physical custody is the time you spend with your child. When you have physical custody of your child, you are responsible for providing a safe and loving home, meeting your child’s daily needs, and facilitating your child’s regular routines and activities.
  • Legal custody is the authority to make important decisions concerning your child’s upbringing. It includes your right to have a say in your child’s religion, education, child care, recreational activities, and medical and dental care. Having legal custody grants you the right to participate in crucial aspects of their child’s life while ensuring you help shoulder the responsibility of raising them. 

While physical custody is often split, legal custody is typically shared because your rights and responsibilities as a parent do not end when your child is not in your sight. 

New Mexico Law Presumes Shared Legal Custody is Best 

Unless one parent is completely unfit for the job (usually because of addiction, abuse, or mental illness), New Mexico state law assumes that parents will share custody of their children.

This means:

  • (1) each parent shall have significant, well-defined periods of responsibility for the child;
  • (2) each parent shall have, and be allowed and expected to carry out, responsibility for the child’s financial, physical, emotional, and developmental needs during that parent’s periods of responsibility; and 
  • (3) the parents shall consult with each other on major decisions involving the child before implementing those decisions.

As the majority of the language above hints, New Mexico’s child custody laws are more focused on legal custody (parenting responsibilities) than physical custody (parenting time). In fact, our state’s custody custody law encourages parents to hammer out an agreement on the following topics and draft a court-approved parenting plan discussing them:

  • (1) statements regarding the child’s religion, education, child care, recreational activities, and medical and dental care;
  • (2) designation of specific decision-making responsibilities;
  • (3) methods of communicating information about the child, transporting the child, exchanging care for the child, and maintaining telephone and mail contact between parent and child;
  • (4) procedures for future decision-making, including procedures for dispute resolution; and
  • (5) other statements regarding the welfare of the child or designed to clarify and facilitate parenting under joint custody arrangements.

This can be a tall order, especially if your child is quite young and you have not thought about many of these things before. But it is also challenging if your child is over the age of 14, and the judge will expect them to have had a hand in crafting your custody agreement and parenting plan.

Attorney Matteucci can help you figure out how to address all of these issues and start to build a strong co-parenting relationship. 

Obtaining Sole Legal Custody or Crafting a Modified Legal Custody Agreement 

When a judge is asked to evaluate if joint legal custody is truly in a child’s best interests, he or she is directed to consider:

  • (1) whether the child has established a close relationship with each parent;
  • (2) whether each parent is capable of providing adequate care for the child throughout each period of responsibility, including arranging for the child’s care by others as needed;
  • (3) whether each parent is willing to accept all responsibilities of parenting, including a willingness to accept care of the child at specified times and to relinquish care to the other parent at specified times;
  • (4) whether the child can best maintain and strengthen a relationship with both parents through predictable, frequent contact and whether the child’s development will profit from such involvement and influence from both parents;
  • (5) whether each parent is able to allow the other to provide care without intrusion, that is, to respect the other’s parental rights and responsibilities and right to privacy;
  • (6) the suitability of a parenting plan for the implementation of joint custody, preferably, although not necessarily, one arrived at through parental agreement;
  • (7) geographic distance between the parents’ residences;
  • (8) willingness or ability of the parents to communicate, cooperate or agree on issues regarding the child’s needs; and
  • (9) whether a judicial adjudication has been made in a prior or the present proceeding that either parent or other person seeking custody has engaged in one or more acts of domestic abuse against the child, a parent of the child or other household member. If a determination is made that domestic abuse has occurred, the court shall set forth findings that the custody or visitation ordered by the court adequately protects the child, the abused parent or other household member.

As you can see, these are a wide range of factors, which give the courts some wiggle room to make decisions that they believe are truly in a child’s best interests.

Some families prefer a modified joint legal custody plan that gives the parent who has primary physical custody the power to make parenting decisions without consulting the child’s other parent out of convenience. For example, if a child’s noncustodial parent lives far away, or works a job that makes it difficult for them to attend parent-teacher conferences and doctors appointments, it is often in the child’s best interest for the parent with primary physical custody to be able to make quick decisions by his or herself. 

Modifying Legal Custody Agreements 

If circumstances change, and your custody agreement no longer meets your family’s needs, it is possible to have it modified. The party requesting the change must be able to show there has been a “material and substantial change” that necessitates a modification, and that the modification will be in the best interests of the child. 

Serving Families with Dignity & Compassion 

The greatest gift you can give your child is your presence in their life. Literally being there is important, but so is stepping up when difficult decisions about your child’s upbringing must be made. That’s why New Mexico law defines joint custody as both physical and legal custody, and why Attorney Bob Matteucci makes sure his clients are fully aware of the importance of securing legal custody of their children regardless of who has primary physical custody. 
The Matteucci Family Law Firm helps families with child custody matters all across New Mexico including Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Los Lunas, and Rio Rancho. Please contact us today to schedule a meeting.