Custody usually comes into question when two parents who are caring for a child separate or divorce.
Before we talk about joint custody, it’s important to note that there are two distinct types of custody when it comes to your children: physical and legal.
Physical custody has to do with who the child lives with and how visitations are handled. Legal custody is the right to make significant decisions on behalf of the child, including decisions about healthcare, education and legal rights.
Joint custody is a term that is used when both parents hold and share some custody rights. Joint custody can be joint physical custody, joint legal custody or both, so it’s important to understand the differences.
Legal Custody vs. Physical Custody
Joint Physical Custody
Joint physical custody means that the child will live with each parent for a specified amount of time. The amount of time does not have to be equally divided for there to be joint custody. Sometimes, because of school, work or travel schedules, living arrangements can’t be even-steven.
The divorce decree will specify how physical custody and living arrangements will work. Most parents try to work out agreements between themselves, or with the help of an attorney or mediator. If they can’t come to a mutual decision, that’s when the court may be called in to resolve the issue.
Joint Legal Custody
Joint legal custody means that both parents must make significant decisions on behalf of the child together. Just because one parent has sole physical custody, meaning the child lives with them full time, they may not have sole legal custody. For example, let’s say the parent with sole physical custody wants to enroll their child in a new school. They may still need permission from the child’s other parent if there is joint legal custody in place.
Joint custody, both physical and legal, is preferred by most psychological experts and law professionals as it results in a much better outcome for the children if the parents can get along reasonably well.
Getting along doesn’t mean the parents will agree on everything, but if there are disagreements, it is expected the parents can handle these differences maturely, perhaps with the periodic help of a mediator to reach certain decisions. Learn more about How to Communicate After Divorce.
Custody is extremely important to understand because it affects your responsibilities as a parent and the well-being, both emotionally and physically, of your children. Child custody laws vary by state. Contact an experienced family law attorney or the local bar association in your state to learn more.