What is joint custody?

Joint custody can look lots of different ways, so make sure you understand your options.

child on father's shoulders walking to woods

What's Inside

What's Inside

Joint custody—also called shared custody—is an arrangement between a divorced couple who shares a child. The child spends an allotted amount of time with each parent, allowing the child to maintain a relationship with both parents. Joint custody can be used in a variety of ways as a parenting plan for both physical custody and legal custody. 

However, joint custody doesn’t guarantee that parents will share parenting time or decision-making power equally. Let’s explore what joint custody is, and when it might be most appropriate for divorcing parents looking to raise their child together.

When exploring questions of child custody, it’s important to first understand that there are two main aspects of custody orders: physical and legal custody. Both are closely connected and also mutually exclusive: Just because a parent is granted one type of custody doesn’t automatically mean they’re granted the other. 

Physical custody

Physical custody determines the place(s) the child lives and how their time is distributed between their parents. In other words, physical custody is concerned with the actual time each parent spends with the child, which may be equally or unequally shared. Sometimes, if a parent is considered to be physically or emotionally harmful to the child, a judge will grant no physical custody—not even visitation rights.

The parent who’s physically present with the child is responsible for providing for their care during that time (generally, food, water and shelter, in addition to educational and medical needs). This parent can also make emergency decisions, regardless of the legal custody arrangements. However, if there’s shared legal custody, the first parent needs to inform the other parent about such a decision as soon as they’re reasonably able to. 

Parents can share joint physical custody even if one parent is granted sole legal custody. It’s also possible for one parent to have primary or sole physical custody while both parents share legal custody.

Legal custody determines which parent(s) has the right to make important decisions concerning their child’s welfare, health and future. Some of the areas in which parents might make such decisions include: 

  • School or child care
  • Religious upbringing, activities or institution
  • Psychiatric, psychological or other mental health needs
  • Health care and dental needs (except in emergencies)
  • Sports, summer camps, vacations or extracurricular activities
  • Travel 
  • Residence 

If one parent is granted sole legal custody, they don’t need to consult with or get approval from the other parent in order to make a decision. However, if both parents share legal custody, making certain decisions individually without communication can result in a violation of custody orders. 

Parents who have legal custody also have the right to access their child’s records, including educational records, health records and others. 

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What is joint custody?

A joint custody agreement is any custody arrangement in which both parents are awarded custody rights. This could mean that parents share the time the child lives or visits with them, that they both have decision-making authority in their child’s life or both.

Though courts tend to favor giving parents joint physical and legal custody, this isn’t always the outcome of every divorce.

How joint custody works

There are many ways in which parents can share joint custody and parental responsibility for their child. The main factors in determining a custody arrangement are the child’s needs and the parents’ ability to raise the child together

Generally, joint custody arrangements operate by the following guidelines, unless otherwise decided by the parents or a judge: 

  • Parents must communicate and consult with each other on all major, non-emergency decisions for their child’s raising and care.
  • Each parent can make independent decisions about the child’s day-to-day care during the time they have physical custody of the child.
  • Each parent can make independent decisions in emergency situations, regardless of the terms of the custody orders. However, parents can’t independently violate the terms of the custody agreement in non-emergency situations.

Examples of joint physical custody

Although not all joint parenting plans follow an even 50-50 time division, parents in joint physical custody arrangements usually spend a similar amount of time with the child. Some of the more common joint physical custody schedules include: 

  • Alternating weeks schedule: The child lives with one parent for one week and the other parent the next week.
  • Alternating two weeks schedule: The child lives with one parent for two weeks and the other parent the next two weeks.
  • 2-2-3 schedule: The child lives with Parent A for two days, then Parent B for two days, then Parent A for a three-day weekend. The next week, the child lives with Parent B for two days, then Parent A for two days, then Parent B for a three-day weekend.
  • 2-2-5-5 schedule: The child lives two days with parent A, two days with parent B, then five days with parent A and five days with parent B.
  • 3-4-4-3 schedule: The child lives three days with parent A, four days with parent B, four days with parent A, and three days with parent B.
  • Every weekend schedule: The child lives with one parent during weekdays and the other parent for extended weekends.
  • 4-3 schedule: The child lives with one parent for four days and the other parent for three days.

Joint legal custody can also take different forms. Parents may decide what best fits their circumstances, or the court can use one of the following variations as a starting point for the final arrangement: 

  • Joint shared legal custody: Both parents have equal rights and responsibilities to make major decisions about the child’s welfare. This includes decisions on religious upbringing, education, medical care and extracurricular activities.
  • Alternating legal custody: Each week, the parents alternate having the right to make decisions.
  • Sole legal custody with consultation: Although one parent makes all the major decisions regarding the child’s welfare, they must first consult with the other parent, who has a say in those decisions.
  • Split legal custody: Each parent has the responsibility and authority to make decisions concerning particular aspects of the child’s life. For example, one may be responsible for medical care and schooling, while the other is responsible for religion and extracurricular activities.

No matter what type of joint legal custody arrangement you decide on, it’s important to have an open dialogue with your ex and reach agreements that are in the best interest of your child.

Pros and cons of joint custody

One of the biggest benefits of a joint custody agreement is that the child gets to spend time with each parent, allowing them to maintain a meaningful relationship with them and grow up with their influence and support. 

A joint custody arrangement might also serve the relationship between the parents directly. With the child as common ground between them, the parents have the opportunity to practice and grow in better communication and collaboration together, possibly even reducing their conflict. 

Lastly, with joint custody arrangements, neither parent has to carry the full weight of the day-to-day responsibilities and expenses of raising a child. 

At the same time, joint custody arrangements have downsides. Some disadvantages to keep in mind include: 

  • Need for parental cooperation: Joint custody is typically more appropriate for parents who have a reasonable degree of communication and ability to raise their child together. Joint custody can lead to logistical chaos if the parents are constantly struggling with decisions, which can negatively impact the child.
  • Feelings of instability: Some children find it challenging to move back and forth regularly between two homes. Doing so may impact their sense of stability and safety.
  • Exchange logistics: If the child moves frequently between both parents’ homes, it may be hard to ensure everything is where it’s intended to be. It’s all too easy for homework, sports gear or treasured stuffed animals to be left in the “wrong home”. 
  • Child’s role between the parents: Sometimes, in cases of high tension and/or poor communication between the parents, the child may be led to take on the role of a messenger or referee between them. In these situations, the child’s needs may go unnoticed.

When joint custody works best

Joint custody is generally preferred by courts, but in some cases, a judge may acknowledge that such an arrangement may be inappropriate or could cause more harm than good. Joint custody usually isn’t a good fit for parents who are unable to make decisions about their child together, or if one parent refuses to cooperate. It may also be harmful when one parent has a history of domestic violence, neglect or abuse. 

Parents who meet the following conditions are generally best suited to joint custody arrangements: 

  • They live physically close to each other and joint physical custody is logistically realistic
  • They can communicate well and make decisions about their child together
  • They agree joint custody is in their child’s best interests
  • They both desire to be involved in raising their child
  • They have no history of violence, abuse or neglect

Additionally, parents who share the same fundamental values are best suited to joint legal custody, as they’re more likely to see eye-to-eye on important decisions. 

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Joint custody and child support

When parents share the day-to-day responsibilities for their child in joint physical custody, they both provide the basics and cover a certain amount of expenses independently. Still, unless the parents share equal parenting time and earn roughly equal incomes, it’s common for one parent to pay child support. 

Each state calculates child support payments in joint custody cases differently, but most states use one of two models:

  • Income shares model: The parent’s combined income and the number of children are used to determine the total amount of child support that should be provided, whether in direct payments or in daily expenses. The parents’ proportional contributions to the combined income are then used to determine how much each parent is responsible for contributing to this support.
  • Percentage of income model: Some states determine child support obligations as a direct percentage of each parent’s income. Support can sometimes also depend on the number of children. Other states use a flat rate that varies between income tiers.

The courts also take active parenting time into account when calculating child support. Generally, the more time each parent spends with the child and is responsible for covering their expenses, the lower additional child support payments will be. Some states also look at the number of overnights each parent has with the child when determining the expense of parenting time. 

Can you modify a child custody agreement?

It’s possible to modify your joint custody agreement, but you must be able to show that: 

  • The other parent is no longer fit, willing or able to provide for the child and retain custody, AND/OR 
  • There’s been a substantial change in circumstances with either the child or the other custodial parent such that it would best benefit the child to modify the custody agreement

There’s no time limit for petitioning for a modification to your custody orders, but you must come prepared to support your arguments with strong evidence.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

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