Parental rights and responsibilities is a legal term that outlines the specific rights and responsibilities that a legal parent has to their child or children. It is probably easiest to lay this out in several components which I will do below:

Who is considered a parent?

Every state has its own set of laws defining and determining parental rights and responsibilities, but in the most general sense, parents are the people who have legal custody of the child(ren). It is important to note that a child can’t have more than two legal parents at a time. Where this distinction is important is in cases of adoption or in situations where one or both biological parents of a child lose custody. For example, if grandparents of a child are granted custody of that child, the child does not now have both the grandparents and the biological parents all as acting parents.

There are many different types of situations where a child’s parents may legally become someone other than the child’s biological parents, either temporarily or permanently.

How are parental rights defined?

Parental rights include but may not be limited to:

  • right to physical custody, which means reasonable visitation with a child and regular contact
  • right to legal custody, meaning the ability to make major decisions about the child’s health, education, and religious upbringing
  • right to pass property to a child via gift or inheritance, and
  • right to a child’s earnings and to inherit from child in the event of death.

Often these rights are shared between both parents, however how these rights are split up can be determined by many different circumstances and scenarios. One such scenario would be where one parent has majority time-sharing of the child(ren) while the other parent has limited time-sharing. In other cases one or both parents may lose all parental rights.

How are parent’s responsibilities defined?

Legally a parent must provide child’s basic needs and parent in a way that is in the best interests of the child. As you can imagine this is largely open to interpretation which is part of what makes the challenge of co-parenting or single-parenting so strenuously difficult. Some basic needs would be defined as food, housing, clothing, education, medical care and reasonable protection from abuse or neglect from any other person who provides care for the child(ren), including the other parent. It is also a parent’s responsibility to support their child(ren) financially, often until the age of 18 or graduation from high school.

Under what circumstances will the court be involved in determining rights and responsibilities?

There are many different scenarios under which a court may become involved in determining a child’s rights and responsibilities. Some of the common scenarios are during divorce proceedings, custody proceedings initiated by either parent or custody proceedings initiated by an outside party such as child protective services.

If a court becomes involved in determining parental rights and responsibilities they may make some or all of the decisions involving the child(ren). In some cases the parents will successfully mediate some or all of the decisions prior to a judge having to. In other cases an outside third party may be asked to make recommendations to the court in helping to determine the best interests of the child.

Many people, including attorneys, will strongly recommend mediation between parents as opposed to a court having to make decisions regarding parental rights and responsibilities. This is partly because a court is being forced to make these decisions on limited or incomplete sets of facts. Many courts strongly encourage mediation as well based on this same premise.

What do I do if I am involved in a parental rights and responsibilities case between myself and the other parent?

The most important thing that anyone can do is seek out competent legal advice and representation. The legal system is very difficult to navigate and requires the experience and knowledge of qualified legal representation. Like any other aspect of the legal system, the old adage that he/she who represents him/herself has a fool for an attorney. Don’t go it alone. There is too much at stake, most importantly, the best interests of the child(ren).