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How Does Joint Custody Work?

Understanding the differences between physical and legal joint custody. 

Custody usually comes into question when two parents separate or divorce. 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 refers to 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.

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 split 50-50.

In divorce situations, the divorce decree specifies how physical custody and living arrangements will work. Most co-parents try to work out agreements between themselves, or with the help of an attorney or mediator. However, if they can’t come to a mutual decision, 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 joint legal custody is in place.

Joint custody, both physical and legal, is preferred by most psychological experts and law professionals. It results in a much better outcome for the children if the parents can get along reasonably well.

Getting along doesn’t mean that you and your co-parent have to agree on everything, but if there are disagreements, you are expected to handle these differences maturely (perhaps with the periodic help of a mediator to reach certain decisions). Learn more about How to Communicate After Divorce.

It’s important to have a thorough understanding of custody because it affects your responsibilities as a parent, as well as the emotional and physical well-being of your child. Because child custody laws vary by state, it’s beneficial to contact an experienced family law attorney or the local bar association to learn more.

Communication is Key

Part of any custody agreement is the way in which co-parents speak and arrange custody exchanges. Using a co-parenting communication service like TalkingParents can help. Our service offers several features to help you and your co-parent coordinate custody arrangements and schedules, including Secure Messaging, Accountable Calling, the Shared Calendar, and the Info Library.

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