Joint child custody, also known as shared custody, is one child custody option that exists for divorcing or separating parents. When a court awards joint child custody, it gives both parents equal rights and responsibilities for raising their child or children. This means they have the authority to make decisions, together or independently, regarding the child's upbringing and welfare.

The two aspects of joint child custody

Joint child custody has two aspects: joint physical custody and joint legal custody. Joint legal custody gives both parents an equal stake in making decisions about their child's education, health care, and religion. Joint physical custody means the child lives with both parents for an equal amount of time.

Courts may award legal and physical custody separately. For example, parents may share joint legal custody while one parent has sole physical custody. In this case, both parents participate in making major decisions on the child's behalf, but the child lives with one parent in one location. Usually, the parent who does not have physical custody is granted visitation rights.

When to seek joint child custody

Most states work under the presumption that joint child custody is in the child's best interests. If both you and your former spouse show you can carry out your parental obligations, a court will grant joint child custody.

Joint physical custody works best when you and your former spouse live relatively close to each other. This causes the least disruption in your child's routine.

If you find it difficult to share joint legal custody due to a lack of involvement on the part of your former spouse, you can file for sole legal custody. To win sole legal custody, you must prove that joint legal custody is not in your child's best interests. Generally, courts award sole legal custody if the other parent has caused direct harm to the child through abuse or neglect.

How to file for joint child custody

The court that has jurisdiction over your divorce also determines child custody, including the amount and frequency of contact you will have with your child. This can be a complicated process, so it's important to choose a lawyer experienced in family law to represent your interests.

In the case of joint physical custody, the court may assign a schedule that specifies which parent lives with the child at a particular time. For example, the child lives with one parent for the first two weeks of the month, and the other parent for the second two weeks. If the court grants sole physical custody to one parent, it may order a specific visitation plan. For example, visitation rights may be granted for every other weekend of the month. These details are designed to prevent confusion or misunderstandings once child custody is decided.