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Understanding Custody in Oregon

For most parents involved in a family law legal matter, their number one question is whether they will end up with custody. However, most parents don’t actually know the true legal definition of custody, or the impact a custody order will have on their family. In Oregon, custody is the legal decision-making power over major, non-emergency medical, educational, and religious decisions. How this type of decision-making is divided can vary from family to family, but it typically falls into two categories: joint custody or sole custody. Sole custody to one parent works well for many families, while joint custody is beneficial for others. Understanding the benefits of both types of custody is important before filing your case.

Joint Custody

Joint custody is the shared right to make decisions about major issues. For parents who see eye to eye on big philosophical issues, and who have historical made all major decisions for their children together, sharing custody can be a very beneficial arrangement. After all, raising children is hard work. Under joint custody, parents can share the labor of making decisions, interacting with care providers, and authorizing courses of action. It gives both parents an active role shaping the lives and futures of their children, as though the family was still intact despite the separation of the parents. In turn, children of parents who share custody get the opportunity to watch their parents collaborate on their care.

However, joint custody does not work in every family dynamic. Sometimes the ending of the romantic relationship makes joint decision-making impossible or impractical. Also, parents who fundamentally disagree on an issue like vaccinations or religious training will probably not be able to come to a compromise that works for their child. Parents who live far apart from each other may not be able to have important conversations as needed, or be able to communicate in a timely manner when an important decision must be made quickly. Importantly, parents who have experienced abuse or manipulation within their relationship are likely to experience those issues in a joint custody arrangement as well.

In Oregon, a judge cannot force parents to share joint custody. They must specifically agree on joint custody, either in a settlement agreement or in a courtroom. Joint custody can also be modified if the parents come to an impasse on an important decision, and may find themselves in court to resolve the issue.

Sole Custody

Sole custody is the right of one parent to make all major non-emergency decisions regarding their children, whether or not their co-parent agrees with the planned course of action. When parents disagree on critical issues, or if one parent has always been the parent to make major medical and educational decisions for their children, they will each typically seek sole custody in order. Sole custody is also typically necessary in coparenting dynamics where abuse has been present.

Seeking sole custody should be considered to a great deal and should have justifications for it, such as continuing a practice to which the children have already been accustomed, and which benefits the children. It does require a lot more effort from the custodial parent, and that in turn can cause interruptions in other areas of their lives. And some parents are surprised to learn that sole custody does not allow them to make decisions about their coparent’s parenting time - both parents have the right to make day-to-day decisions about issues like diet, bedtime, emergency medical care, and discipline while the child is in their care. Parents who have concerns about those types of problems would likely benefit from a more elaborate parenting plan instead of sole custody.


Every family is different, and they have different needs. If you have questions about what arrangement works best for you, our firm would be happy to speak with you. Please contact us by submitting a consultation request through our website here.

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